In an apparent rejection of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ insistence that its top executives weren’t responsible for a 2014 medical wait time scandal, both of Texas’ U.S. senators and Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday said an internal investigation revealing systemic data manipulation in the state shows “failures of leadership at senior levels.”
In a joint letter to VA Secretary Robert McDonald, the Texas leaders urged the firing of any VA executive “whose poor performance or misconduct warrants such removal.”
That seems unlikely — so far, at least — in Texas. The American-Statesman reported last week that not a single Texas employee of the VA has been disciplined in the wake of the VA’s Office of Inspector General probe of wait time allegations, according to the U.S. House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.
That investigation found data manipulation to be systemic in Austin, San Antonio and Kerrville. Under the scheme uncovered by investigators, scheduling clerks regularly inputted false dates for patients’ appointment requests, matching them to first available appointment dates in a practice called “zeroing out.”
Several clerks told investigators that they feared being fired or receiving poor performance reviews if they didn’t participate in the data manipulation. The manipulation helped obscure the problem of lengthy waits for appointments.
Yet the report didn’t assign responsibility for the widespread problems, instead pinning them on “improper training” and “lack of supervision.”
The VA’s inspectors have issued similar reports across the country. According to the VA, 29 employees nationwide have been disciplined in connection to data manipulation.
The VA, however, has trumpeted the inspectors’ reports as a kind of vindication.
“OIG did not substantiate any allegations of a VA senior executive or other senior leader employed by a (Central Texas VA) facility intentionally manipulating scheduling data — nor any individual Central Texas employee,” VA spokeswoman Deborah Meyer said in an email.
It’s unclear though how so many schedulers in so many offices simultaneously misunderstood scheduling instructions in a way that reduced the appearance of wait times.
“We cannot explain the actions of the schedulers,” Meyer said.
In their letter, Abbott and Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz said the inspectors’ report shows that “Texas veterans were misled by a mismanaged, bureaucratic system intent on providing the appearance of short appointment wait times in order to improve the image and performance statistics of individual VA health facilities.”
VA facilities in South and Central Texas were among dozens nationwide where former and current employees alleged VA officials were hiding the true extent of wait times in a scandal that eventually cost VA Secretary Eric Shinseki his job. In Phoenix, whistleblowers alleged the numerous veterans died while languishing on secret wait lists.
In response, Congress approved $16.3 billion to pay for new staff and facilities and to pay for private sector care for veterans facing long waits. In Central Texas, the money helped fund 118 new positions — a mix of medical providers and support staff.
Last year, VA numbers showed that the rate of delayed appointments was falling in Austin, but remained higher than the national average.
Local VA officials say they have also revamped training for scheduling clerks and their supervisors.
WHAT WE REPORTED
In 2014, the American-Statesman revealed allegations from a Department of Veterans Affairs scheduling clerk, who said that schedulers in Central Texas were directed to manipulate wait-time data by inputting false appointment dates. The story, and subsequent Statesman coverage of other whistleblower claims, prompted calls for a wider investigation of VA scheduling practices in Texas by two dozen members of the state’s congressional delegation.