Breaking months of silence, the Department of Veterans Affairs office of inspector general is defending its handling of investigations into claims of falsifying data on patient wait times in Central Texas.
The internal investigators have come under criticism for confirming a whistleblower’s allegation that data manipulation was “systemic” in Austin and San Antonio but not assigning blame to VA leaders for ordering lower-level employees to do it.
Veterans advocates, members of Congress and the Office of Special Counsel, a federal agency that represents whistleblowers, have complained that the reports essentially gave the VA a free pass despite uncovering widespread data falsification.
After more than two months of silence, the VA’s office of inspector general told the American-Statesman that it presented the results of its Central Texas investigation to federal prosecutors, who declined to pick up the case.
Inspector general spokesman Mike Nacincik said privacy laws prevented the agency from publicly releasing more information about specific employees. According to communications between the U.S. attorney general’s office and the U.S. House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, the Department of Justice has declined to prosecute at least 46 of the 55 wait time cases referred by the VA inspector general. The remaining nine were pending.
The inspector general’s office forwarded the Central Texas case to the VA’s office of accountability review for possible administrative action as it routinely does on cases declined for prosecution. But that office took no action, VA officials confirmed last week.
Lawmakers said the lack of criminal prosecution should not have prevented the VA from holding accountable any decision-makers in Texas who might have given the order to falsify data in Texas.
“Perhaps worse than the flaws in the IG’s report is the VA’s response to it,” said U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida, chairman of the House veterans committee. “It’s well past time for VA leaders to get serious about holding those responsible for the dysfunction outlined in the report accountable — something they have blatantly refused to do thus far.”
The internal investigations, ordered more than two years ago, were considered a key part of the effort to restore the public trust in the VA after a series of revelations that the department was falsifying wait time data across the country in an effort to hide the existence of long delays for care.
In Central Texas, former scheduler Phillip Brian Turner said supervisors ordered scheduling clerks to “zero out” wait times by inputting veterans’ desired dates for appointments as the first available date, thereby erasing the difference.
But upon their release, the investigative reports in Texas and beyond served to deepen suspicion. Inspectors found the data falsification was widespread, but not done with “malicious intent.”
The Office of Special Counsel issued a stern rebuke over the report in April. “While I understand the OIG’s finding that these problems were institutional, institutions are made up of individuals,” Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner wrote. “It is not reasonable to conclude that because the problems were widespread, it is impossible to find the responsible individuals.”
Local lawmakers expressed similar concern.
“The inspector general’s report has certainly not restored my trust,” said U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a Democrat who represents parts of Austin. “A ‘mistakes happen, but we can’t say why’ approach is unacceptable. I continue to urge the VA to make meaningful changes to ensure our vets have timely access to health care.”
U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, an Austin Republican, said the reports, coupled with VA Secretary Robert McDonald’s recent statement comparing wait times at the VA to lines at Disney parks, show the department has not yet learned its lesson.
“The findings of the inspector general do little to mitigate the real problem at VA,” McCaul told the Statesman. “They are not taking veteran wait times seriously.”
After the reports, VA officials pledged to overhaul training for schedulers. Some veterans groups said the effort appears to be paying off.
The Texas chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars told the Statesman that it is “satisfied that appropriate actions are being taken to rectify the situation relative to scheduling practices and wait times at … San Antonio and Kerrville, as well as the Austin Outpatient Clinic.”
“Is it ‘fixed’ yet? No,” Texas VFW State Surgeon Thomas “Doc” Howard said. “Is it being addressed appropriately? Yes.”
U.S. Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock, called the investigations “steps in the right direction,” though he “continue(s) to be very concerned about the lack of performance at the VA.”
VA Inspector General Michael Missal took over the internal investigating agency earlier this month, pledging a new era of transparency after complaints that the agency had delayed release of dozens of wait time reports across the country and buried a critical report on opioid prescribing in Wisconsin.
After a Statesman report detailing the lack of response from the OIG regarding the questions surrounding local investigations, Missal called the newspaper to apologize and promise better communication.
The agency also responded to Office of Special Counsel complaints about investigative methods at the Olin E. Teague Veterans Medical Center in Temple, where VA inspectors said they couldn’t substantiate claims of scheduling manipulation. The Office of Special Counsel complained that the OIG interviewed only two of seven employees a whistleblower said had knowledge of scheduling manipulation and didn’t give employees a chance to provide documentation at promised follow-up interviews.
According to Nacincik, the complainant named only six individuals, all of whom were interviewed. VA investigators provided contact information so that those interviewed could provide additional information at a later time, he said.
What we reported
In 2014, the American-Statesman detailed allegations from a Department of Veterans Affairs scheduling clerk, who said that VA leadership in Central Texas had directed schedulers to manipulate wait time data at local medical facilities by inputting false appointment dates.
The story, and subsequent Statesman coverage of other VA whistleblower claims, prompted calls for a wider investigation of VA scheduling practices in Texas by two dozen members of the state’s congressional delegation.