New accounting finds long wait times persist at VA facilities

Just last week, new VA Secretary Robert McDonald outlined the first steps he would take to reform the beleaguered veterans’ health agency. There were buzzwords and the threat of firings. Today, USA Today released fresh info detailing continuing appointment wait times of longer than 30 days at dozens of VA facilities:

The new data show that dozens of hospitals and clinics leave a quarter or more of all their patients waiting 30 days or more for an appointment.

• Some facilities still have extremely long wait times for basic care, including 64 that have average wait times over 60 days for new patients seeking primary care. They include major facilities, such as hospitals in Baltimore; Jacksonville, Fla.; Temple, Texas, and Atlanta. All have at least 30,000 pending appointments.​

USA Todays’ new data analyzes appointments up to October 1 and, according to a VA spokesman, the new numbers represent a 57% reduction in the number of veterans waiting longest for care. Still, you may not want to trust the VA’s own math, considering that the department appears to have previously juiced the numbers with some phony accounting:

In Jacksonville, the average new patient is left waiting 77 days, a fact that previously obscured in the VA’s data because it was averaged into the much-better performance of the nearby Gainesville hospital. Jacksonville only sees two-thirds of its patients within 30 days, the worst rate of any major facility in the VA system.

This comes amid a report out of Minnesota that has former VA employees telling the Star Tribune that they were told to scrub records to make it appear that veterans were seen within fourteen days of making appointments. Their account of “clearing the access reports,” on the record for the first time, is noteworthy because an audit in June said allegations of scheduling irregularities at Hibbing could not be substantiated. Of course, records tampering will make it difficult to discover the truth:

Senior leaders from the Minneapolis VA have made monthly visits to the clinic.

“We have not identified issues with scheduling practices at the Hibbing Clinic during these visits,” the VA said in a statement.

The former employees maintain that the backdating orders stopped only in late April, when investigators found that the VA medical system, which serves almost 9 million veterans nationwide every year, was maintaining secret waiting lists and delivering insufficient care. A May report from the VA’s inspector general described inappropriate scheduling as “systemic,” and VA Secretary Eric Shinseki was forced to resign amid the controversy.

The latest accusations emerging in Hibbing come just days after the new national leader of the VA, Bob McDonald, vowed to establish customer-friendly reforms and to make the VA more accountable nationwide.

If the Hibbing employees’ account sounds familiar, it’s because it largely tracks the June audit that found thirteen percent of VA schedulers claimed to have been told by supervisors to cook the books. That thirteen percent likely represents only the lower bound of involved schedulers, though, since it relied on the employees being willing to voluntarily report on being part of the problem. In a department that retaliated against the people that brought long VA wait times to light, I’m still surprised even thirteen percent were willing to talk to investigators. It should not escape your notice that the folks from the Hibbing Clinic willing to be quoted on the record are former employees and thus beyond the reach of the VA now.

Gabriel Malor is an attorney and writer at Ace of Spades HQ. Find him on Twitter.