Emails Track How VA Officials Conspired to Manipulate Wait Times

Thursday, 29 May 2014 12:36 PM

By Melissa Clyne

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Despite years of repeated complaints and evidence showing patient wait-time fraud at the Central Texas VA, the inspector general never held anyone accountable and even bestowed the Robert W. Carey Performance Excellence Award on the facility, The Daily Beast reports.

A Texas whistleblower provided the publication with emails and internal memos detailing "how high-level VA hospital employees conspired to game the system" by doing things like entering the next available appointment date instead of a patient's desired appointment date into the computer system, according to The Daily Beast, which was often a difference of weeks and months.

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Fifty percent of VA executives' "field bonus" pay hinged on wait times, according to the whistleblower.

This "low-risk, high-reward form of cheating" was pervasive throughout the VA, the whistleblower said, yet the outcome of a 2011 inspector general investigation that found "significant delays" and "widespread manipulation" of appointments didn't result in disciplinary action against any VA officials.

"Every doctor, nurse, and clerk in the hospital knows it's true, but the VA's investigative team wasn't able to find any evidence," the whistleblower said. "They didn't interview any of us or really try to find out what was going on. This was reported in 2011 and it's still not fixed today."

The person said they have been alerting authorities for years about the practice, but it falls on deaf ears. The whistleblower's account corroborates an earlier allegation that the chief of radiology at the VA's medical center in Temple "regularly asked physicians to change their requested date for ultrasounds, MRIs, and CT scans to hide the existence of long backlogs for tests that are required before life-saving treatment can begin," the Austin American-Statesman reported earlier this month.

After retiring in January, Dr. Joseph Spann penned a letter to VA investigators accusing radiology chief Dr. Gordon Vincent of systemically engaging in scheduling fraud to make it appear as though vets were receiving timely care.

The VA announced last week that it investigated Spann's allegations but found no evidence to substantiate them, according to the Statesman. But internal emails provided to both the newspaper and The Daily Beast show an email chain discussing the wait-time manipulation among physicians and administrators.

The Statesman also spoke to a VA scheduling clerk who said he and other clerks in Waco, Austin, and San Antonio were directed "to manipulate appointment data to mask long wait times."

Since the Phoenix whistleblower came forward, the scandal has mushroomed to 26 facilities under investigation. Whistleblowers in Wyoming and New Mexico also surfaced, all with similar accounts of wait-time cover-ups.

The genesis of it all is money, according to whistleblowers.

"If [VA] directors report low numbers, they're the outlier," the Texas whistleblower told The Daily Beast. "They won't stay a director very long and they certainly won't get promoted. No one is getting rewarded for honesty. They pretty much have to lie, if they don't they won't go anywhere."

"If one person comes up with a way to cheat on a report to the government and profit from that lie, that's defrauding the government," the whistleblower said. "If [hundreds] of people are defrauding the government, it's a conspiracy, and that's what you've got now and it runs coast to coast and bottom to top."

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