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Federal investigation finds faults in VA’s wait times probe

Federal investigators have rebuked the Department of Veterans Affairs for inadequately investigating allegations that several Central Texas clinics tried to make veterans’ wait times for health care appear shorter than they were.

In a news release Wednesday, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel stated that, in three whistleblower investigations, the VA’s “disclosures of scheduling data manipulation at several Texas VA hospitals and clinics are deficient and unreasonable.” The Office of Special Counsel, which wrote a letter to Congress and the White House, found the VA’s Office of Inspector General had failed to appropriately address the whistleblowers’ allegations.

“These employees raised important concerns about access to care issues within their hospitals and I applaud their efforts to improve care for veterans,” Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner said. She added that the VA was taking steps to correct the issues.

The office’s announcement comes a little more than a month after the VA’s Office of Inspector General, the department’s self-investigating arm, released a long-awaited report into the allegations of data manipulation. It found that scheduling clerks in Austin, San Antonio and Kerrville regularly engaged in the practice of “zeroing out” patient appointment requests, which resulted in undercounts of true wait times for care.

But that report placed blame on individual clerks and concluded there was no “malicious intent” to cook the VA’s books. Supervisors and administrators denied they instructed clerks to manipulate data, blaming the practice on widespread misunderstanding of VA scheduling rules. One administrator said “the concept of scheduling errors seemed to confuse schedulers.”

The inspector general’s findings had drawn a sharp rebuke from U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

It also incensed Brian Turner, a medical assistant who retired from the VA and had brought allegations that employees in Austin and San Antonio were directed to manipulate patient wait times. He told the American-Statesman on Wednesday the system itself is flawed and that administrators have a financial incentive to cheat.

“They can make $50,000 or $60,000 by changing the data. It’s motive for a crime,” said Turner, a retired Army sergeant. He agrees with the findings of the U.S. Special Counsel Office, but said he doesn’t believe, as the office states in its release, that the VA will make meaningful changes to the way it investigates such allegations.

“The VA can’t be trusted to govern and investigate themselves,” he said. “They’ve already wasted enough time and money investigating themselves. What’s come from it? Nothing.”

The VA’s Office of Inspector General found no evidence of employees receiving bonuses or awards specifically related to patient wait times.

The VA issued a statement responding to the Office of Special Counsel’s findings.

“The department appreciates the work of the independent OIG to provide necessary feedback to help us improve. OIG’s investigations give us the opportunity to make necessary changes and better serve veterans,” the statement said. “In the overwhelming majority of instances, the OIG found no intentional wrongdoing; nonetheless these reports demonstrated the need for standardized training on scheduling across VHA.”

The overarching scandal came to light two years ago, when the VA came under fire nationally for hiding lengthy wait times in an effort to meet goals of seeing patients within 14 days. It began after allegations that numerous VA patients in Phoenix died while languishing on secret wait lists meant to hide the existence of delays for care. It eventually cost former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki his job.

In May 2014, Turner, then a San Antonio VA scheduling clerk who previously worked at the Austin Outpatient Clinic, publicly accused VA officials of submitting false appointment data in Texas.

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