Video: Denver VA reverses denials, admits using secret wait lists

Is the VA scandal over? According to Denver’s 9News and a whistleblower, not hardly. The VA hospital in Denver had earlier insisted that it never put veterans on a secret waiting list to falsify their wait times, but one employee in the sleep center — where cases of potentially life-threatening sleep apnea get diagnosed and treated — produced a secret wait list that kept hundreds of veterans from getting timely care. Now the hospital admits that they lied:

Denver VA Hospital officials reversed course Thursday, admitting their employees broke the rules when they used an improper wait list in the sleep lab in 2012. This comes just one day after the VA made a blanket denial of the existence of secret waiting lists in Denver.

9Wants to Know spent months looking into a whistleblower’s allegations regarding the sleep lab, which performs diagnostic testing for disorders – including potentially deadly sleep apnea.

“I think that putting my neck out for fellow veterans in this instance is the right thing to do,” said whistleblower Tommy Belinski. …

Belinski tells 9Wants to Know he was given a copy of a manual list containing 508 unscheduled sleep clinic patients, and he says he was instructed to transfer the names onto the VA’s official Electronic Wait List (EWL) in May 2012. Keeping a manual wait list would have been a violation of VA policy at that time, according to records 9Wants To Know obtained.

“My bosses were concerned about that,” Belinski said. “They constantly sent out things saying, ‘Hey, make sure you don’t have any paper wait lists,’ and then there were ones that were found,” he said.

The television news outlet had been pressing the Denver VA on this issue for some time — long enough for its spokesman to threaten them with a freeze-out if they didn’t quit asking about it:

Denver VA officials have repeatedly denied requests for an on-camera interview about the sleep clinic wait list. Recent emails to 9Wants To Know from hospital spokesman Dan Warvi have included the subject lines: “Your conduct is severely endangering our relationship,” and “We are declining this and all future interview requests by you.”

Warvi has also chastised 9Wants To Know for calling and writing to VA sleep-clinic employees seeking comment.

D’oh! Maybe the Denver VA should be looking for a new media mouthpiece.

The new development comes as Republicans in the Senate, now in control in the upper chamber, look to focus more attention on the VA and the inept handling of veteran care — an issue that has gone on longer than just the last six years:

“The television cameras may have turned their focus elsewhere, but we will not,” Kansas GOP Sen. Jerry Moran said in a statement Thursday announcing he’s spearheading the Senate companion to a bill designed to give more power to the VA secretary to discipline senior executives engaged in improper practices.

“Despite the passage of the Choice Act last year, the VA is still not doing enough to hold those responsible accountable for their corrupt behavior when treating our nation’s veterans,” Moran said, calling for dismantling of a “system that rewards mediocrity and failure.”

He’s joined on the effort by Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Marco Rubio of Florida, according to an advance release obtained by CQ Roll Call. McCain has consistently said that more needs to be done in the aftermath of the scandal that originated out of the VA hospital in Phoenix.

Among the changes, the bill would allow for senior employees to face reductions in their pensions after relevant criminal convictions, and an overhaul of the way the VA handles performance evaluations.

The hot glare of publicity may have cooled considerably from last spring in the VA scandal, but the scandal of slow care and discarded veterans is just as bad as it was then, and as it has been for years and perhaps decades at the VA. What’s needed is an entirely new approach to the VA as a specialty network for the care it delivers best, and a support network for care choices for veterans on everything else. Punishing bad performance in a poorly designed single-payer system only goes so far, because it’s the system itself that incentivizes and perpetuates the bad performance. Until Congress comes to grips with that fundamental issue, the rest is just Band-Aids on a gaping wound.