- The Washington Times
Monday, April 18, 2016

The Department of Veterans Affairs still has not done enough to stop employees from manipulating veterans’ appointment waiting times, and the agency isn’t giving an accurate picture of the delays in veterans’ health care, a nonpartisan watchdog report said in April.

The Government Accountability Office found that the Veterans Health Administration is plagued by “the lack of comprehensive scheduling policy” that makes it difficult for officials to identify and fix the problems.

GAO looked at 180 newly enrolled veterans at six VA facilities nationwide and found that 60 had not been seen by providers at the time of the review.

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“Nearly half were unable to access primary care because VA medical center staff did not schedule appointments for these veterans in accordance with VHA policy,” the report said.

The 120 veterans waited 22 to 71 days from the time they requested appointments until they were seen by a provider, the study found.

“These time frames were impacted by limited appointment availability and weaknesses in medical center scheduling practices, which contributed to unnecessary delays,” GAO said.

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The VA was rocked two years ago by a widespread scandal showing that employees manipulated wait times to make the agency’s performance appear better than it was. Dozens of veterans died while awaiting care. The problem surfaced in Phoenix but expanded to VA facilities across the nation and led to the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki.

VHA provided care to about 6.6 million veterans and spent about $58 billion for their care in fiscal year 2014. The report said that, over the past decade, the number of annual outpatient primary care medical appointments VHA provided through its medical facilities increased by 17 percent, from about 10.2 million to 11.9 million.

The VA said in a statement that it is “in the midst of the largest transformation in its history” with two new programs to give veterans greater access and control of their health care.

“We realize that there is more work to be done, but we have made progress and remain steadfast in our commitment” to veterans, the agency said.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said President Obama and VA Secretary Robert McDonald are still committed to implementing reforms at the VA and that the agency’s problems have been “deeply entrenched” for more than a decade.

“There’s nobody right now that’s satisfied,” he said. “We know that there’s a lot more important work to be done.”

Nevertheless, he said, “There’s no denying that in this first seven years of the Obama administration that we’ve made remarkable progress in improving the service delivery system and drastically reducing the backlog in benefits claims.”

The report said the VA is evaluating its own performance for responding to veterans based on flawed data. In measuring how long veterans wait for care, the agency starts the clock when a VA employee responds to a veteran’s inquiry, not when the veteran calls for an appointment.

GAO investigators found that schedulers at three of the six medical centers changed dates improperly 25 percent of the time, so the VA system falsely showed shorter wait times.

While the agency’s records showed average waiting times from four to 28 days, the actual wait times were 11 to 48 days, the GAO said.

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