VA Healthcare Scandal Spotlight Turns to Albuquerque

Monday, 19 May 2014 10:48 AM

By Melanie Batley

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The Department of Veterans Affairs' Inspector General has for months been conducting an investigation into claims of secret waiting lists at the Albuquerque VA Medical Center, well before media reports emerged in April that the practice led to the deaths of at least 40 veterans in the Phoenix VA health system.

According to the Albuquerque Journal, the Inspector General's office launched a probe after employees claimed last year that VA schedulers were ordered to falsify patient appointment records, which would have the effect of taking advantage of a bonus structure that rewards short wait times.

An unnamed doctor at the Albuquerque VA hospital told The Daily Beast that patients faced an eight-month wait to get ultrasounds of their hearts, and a four-month wait to see a cardiologist, with some dying before they could receive the results of their examinations.

The report said there was no proof that veterans had died as a result of waiting for the treatment but added that officials are trying to hide evidence of the waiting lists, such as removing or renaming databases.

"When everyone found out the [Inspector General] was doing the audit, the word I heard was 'make sure nothing is left out in the open,'" the VA doctor told The Daily Beast. "And that ranged from make sure there's no food out to make sure there's no information out in the open."

New Mexico Democratic Sen. Tom Udall has called for a thorough investigation.

"In the last week, I have heard numerous reports about VA officials in New Mexico attempting to manipulate the scheduling system to cover up the extent of VA wait lists for appointments and other disturbing claims," Udall said in a statement, according to the Journal.

"Veterans who have been waiting for months to see a doctor deserve answers," Udall said, adding, "I am outraged that this scheme might be going on in New Mexico, or anywhere else in the country."

The allegations come on the heels of a growing list of reports across the country of similar practices, which has triggered a national audit already covering cases in Colorado, Wyoming, Texas, Arizona, and Illinois, and numerous calls for VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign.

"If bonuses were ever given out based on false or manipulated information — the VA should take appropriate action immediately to protect taxpayers and restore integrity in the VA system," Udall said.

A spokeswoman for the Albuquerque VA Medical Center refused to comment on the allegations of the lists or answer questions about performance bonuses, according to the Albuquerque Journal.

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