- Jeremy Schwartz American-Statesman Staff
The Department of Veterans Affairs hasn’t disciplined a single Texas employee in the wake of an internal investigation that found systemic manipulation of patient wait time data in Central Texas, according to the U.S. House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.
This week, the VA’s Office of Inspector General released a long-awaited report into allegations of data manipulation that found 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.
Two years ago, the VA came under fire nationally for hiding lengthy wait times in an effort to meet goals of seeing patients within 14 days.
Several employees said they feared discipline action or retaliation if they didn’t input false data. Two schedulers, in Kerrville and San Antonio, told investigators they worried they would lose their jobs if they didn’t enter false wait times in the VA scheduling system.
Supervisors and administrators denied they instructed clerks to engage in data manipulation, 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 report concluded there was no “malicious intent” to cook the VA’s books, a finding that drew a sharp rebuke from U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.
“This investigation documents dysfunction on the part of both the Department of Veterans Affairs and its inspector general,” said Miller, R-Fla. “The findings are clear: Scheduling clerks throughout Central Texas manipulated wait time data. And in classic VA fashion, not a single person has been held accountable for any of this wrongdoing.”
According to the VA, 29 employees nationwide have been disciplined in the data manipulation scandal that erupted in 2014 and eventually cost former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki his job. The scandal 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.
In May 2014, a San Antonio scheduling clerk, who previously worked at the Austin Outpatient Clinic, publicly accused VA officials of submitting false appointment data in Texas, adding that schedulers were also directed not to use an electronic wait list, which could potentially disclose the existence of particularly lengthy wait times. The inspector general’s report didn’t substantiate that allegation.
That whistleblower, Brian Turner, said it is hard to swallow the report’s finding that no one ordered clerks to manipulate data. “How do multiple employees from across the nation share the same or similar concerns without it being a national policy coming from high?” said Turner, who has since retired from the VA. “This report only shows further proof the VA cannot fairly investigate themselves without prejudice. … I find this report as many Americans and my fellow veterans do, a worthless piece of garbage and a tremendous waste of federal funds.”
The inspector general also dismissed several other allegations in reports released this week, including a claim that the chief of imaging services for the Central Texas VA manipulated appointment times for radiological studies.
The VA’s internal watchdog has come under fire from members of Congress and the Office of Special Counsel for delaying the results of its investigations, which in some cases were completed over a year ago. In late February, the VA began releasing 77 reports of investigations across the country. According to the Office of Inspector General, it found intentional data manipulation in 51 cases. The office didn’t address multiple inquiries from the Statesman regarding the South and Central Texas investigation.
Central Texas VA leaders presented the findings as vindication, noting that “the OIG has not substantiated any case in which a VA senior executive or other senior leader intentionally manipulated scheduling data.”
The Central Texas Veterans Health Care System includes the Austin Outpatient Clinic where investigators found that “almost all schedulers and clinics had zero wait times. For the wait time to equal zero, the desired date had to be the same date as the appointment date.”