Judicial Watch has found documentation that shows a deliberate effort to destroy documentation relating to massive cancellations of appointments at the VA in order to falsify wait times. In a press release this morning (not yet up on its site), the watchdog group lays out the findings from documents accessed through FOIA demands that vindicate one whistleblower and expose the wider fraud effort that went far beyond scheduling. In this case, the Office of Inspector General might have some questions to answer, too:
Judicial Watch announced today that in March 2014 it obtained internal Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) documents revealing that on November 25, 2009, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) was informed that top VA officials had ordered a nationwide purge of “all outstanding [MRI] imaging orders for studies older than 6 months.” Seven days later, on December 2, 2009, the OIG closed its investigation without taking further action.
The documents obtained by Judicial Watch also detail repeated efforts by VA whistleblower Oliver Mitchell, a Marine veteran and former patient services assistant, to persuade the OIG to fully investigate the mass destruction of veterans’ medical files and the cancellation of examination requests. The documents, dating back to 2009, reveal that OIG spent barely two months investigating the allegations before closing the case.
The VA documents came in response to a February 27, 2014, Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed by Judicial Watch seeking “records of communications between officials of the Veterans Administration Greater Los Angeles Medical Center [GLA] from August 1, 2008, to July 32, 2009, relating to the destruction of patient medial files and the cancellation of medical exam requests.” The FOIA request also sought records in the possession of the Veterans Administration’s Office of Inspector General relating to the GLA’s alleged destruction of patients’ medical files and examination requests.
The Daily Caller also picked up on this story today, and provided some audio of a November 2008 meeting of the VA’s office in Los Angeles planning the cancellation of orders to improve the wait-list times:
Audio of an internal VA meeting obtained by TheDC confirms that VA officials in Los Angeles intentionally canceled backlogged patient exam requests.
“The committee was called System Redesign and the purpose of the meeting was to figure out ways to correct the department’s efficiency. And one of the issues at the time was the backlog,” Oliver Mitchell, a Marine veteran and former patient services assistant in the VA Greater Los Angeles Medical Center, told TheDC.
“We just didn’t have the resources to conduct all of those exams. Basically we would get about 3,000 requests a month for [medical] exams, but in a 30-day period we only had the resources to do about 800. That rolls over to the next month and creates a backlog,” Mitchell said. ”It’s a numbers thing. The waiting list counts against the hospitals efficiency. The longer the veteran waits for an exam that counts against the hospital as far as productivity is concerned.”
By 2008, some patients were “waiting six to nine months for an exam” and VA “didn’t know how to address the issue,” Mitchell said.
VA Greater Los Angeles Radiology department chief Dr. Suzie El-Saden initiated an “ongoing discussion in the department” to cancel exam requests and destroy veterans’ medical files so that no record of the exam requests would exist, thus reducing the backlog, Mitchell said.
The cover-up extended well into 2009, Judicial Watch argues, and has some documentation to support the claim:
Another document obtained by Judicial Watch in response to its February VA FOIA request included verbatim disclosures and accusations made by Mitchell, then a Patient Services Assistant in the VA’s Radiology Section. The Mitchell memos, repeatedly urging the OIG to act, had not been previously released to the public:
- May 12, 2009: “From June 2008 to September 2008 the current interim chief stated, ‘Our clinic had the worst performance numbers compared to other VA’s nationwide’… she also stated ‘management stated no MRI orders should be cancelled and/or deleted’ … Shortly thereafter, I noticed that requests for MRIs were being cancelled dating from the year 2000 to November 2008. I approached the current interim chief about this matter in which she responded ‘management was all over her and she had to do something.’”
- March 24, 2009: “Since my employment within this department I have witnessed ‘valid requests for MRI’s’ being cancelled and/or deleted from the system as a means of reducing the number of requests for MRI’s pending. This has been ongoing since my employment here. It is my opinion that the harassment, death threats and threats of termination I have received are due to my vocal opposition to this practice.”
- March 24, 2009: “In February 2009 I received via voicemail a complaint from the daughter of a Veteran who stated her father had come to the VA for care and the doctor had submitted a request for a MRI. The daughter expressed great sadness and anger in our process stating her father had suffered from a massive stroke while waiting for his MRI appointment. I informed Dr. [REDACTED] of the voicemail and her response was to give her the request and not speak of the matter, she stated, ‘I already have enough tort claims as it is.’ Shortly after this, I noticed that more request were being deleted from the system.”
- May 12, 2009: “It is my opinion that this department has not been able to meet its mandated obligations with regards to performance. The administrative process is flawed and has resulted in deaths, continued pain and suffering and an overall decline in Veterans’ health due to the lengthy wait for an MRI.”
“This shows that the Obama administration long knew of the deadly abuse being suffered by our nation’s veterans at the hands of the VA and did nothing about it,” said Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton. “Can you imagine waiting months to have a MRI only to have it cancelled by a government bureaucrat? The American public should thank Oliver Mitchell for coming forward and blowing this whistle on this deadly corruption.”
If the OIG knew about this and closed the investigation in December 2009, that raises all sorts of questions as to why. Did they not have enough evidence to expose this? If that was the case, then they should have continued the investigation for more than one week. Declaring a finding of insufficient evidence should require a little more effort than a few days between Thanksgiving and the Christmas shopping season. As we now know, the problem was both widespread and deadly.
The entire VA needs a “system redesign,” one that will free veterans to find their own care rather than be held captive in a corrupt system. The OIG might need a “system redesign” as well.