The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) still can’t seem to get a handle on its workers manipulating wait times for veterans to get appointments. Even worse, few officials and staff have been held accountable for the mismanagement and competence that led to veterans being harmed and dying for lack of care.
Recently, findings from the VA’s inspector general were released by USAToday. The agency’s watchdog investigated 77 wait-time claims and of the 38 cases whose findings were released, 21 had improper scheduling. Two years after the wait-time manipulations scandal first broke, VA schedulers are still purposefully changing dates to make it appears as if veterans seeking care have no wait time. They are entering the next available date to a veteran’s desired appointment date. I would be irate if my baker decides to deliver my wedding cake on the next available date because she’s busy on my wedding day but still calls it an on-time delivery. How much worse is it then for veterans looking for care that could save their lives?
In some instances, supervisors reportedly are directing them to do it and staff who are trying to be accurate are told to “knock it off” by their managers.
In addition, some VA staff reportedly kept secret wait lists outside of the scheduling system to hide the actual wait times.
Whether these were deliberate attempts to fudge the numbers or confusion and lack of training, the VA still has a big problem that requires staff changes and retraining at every level.
Whistleblowers contend that problems persist and are worse than the VA inspector general investigations imply:
“My office has just been crazy busy with providers, schedulers, coming to me and saying, ‘Hey, we’re still manipulating, and the intimidation is still active,’ ” said Germaine Clarno, a social worker and union representative at a suburban Chicago VA Medical Center.
“I can promise you that it is still going on at facilities across this country,” said Shea Wilkes, co-director with Clarno of a group of more than 40 whistleblowers from VA medical facilities in more than a dozen states.
“The investigations they’re doing continue to be half-a—- and shoddy,” said Wilkes, a social worker at the Shreveport, La., VA who blew the whistle on wait-time problems there. “I mean, it’s sad because veterans are still getting poor care.”
And the whistleblowers aren’t the only ones who think the investigations are half-hearted:
… The Office of Special Counsel, which is responsible for investigating whistleblower complaints, has written a letter to President Obama complaining that probes were inadequate at VA medical centers in Hines, Ill., and Shreveport, where Clarno and Wilkes had reported problems.
“The OIG investigations found evidence to support the whistleblowers’ allegations that employees were using separate spreadsheets outside of the VA’s electronic scheduling and patient records systems,” Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner wrote. “However, the OIG largely limited its review to determining whether these separate spreadsheets were ‘secret.’ ”
We’ve been told by senior VA officials that you can’t fire your way to success, but what they’re doing isn’t working either. They would rather keep rotten apples in the bunch than do what it takes to toss them out.
This is also a case where process trumps outcomes. VA is incentivizing workers and supervisors to falsely report zero wait times rather than being truthful and then working on improving delivery times. We all know the VA is not efficient, but pretending they are now only does a disservice to those they serve, our veterans. Meanwhile the problem remains unaddressed.
Two years ago we watched the former VA head Eric Shinseki feign outrage before a congressional hearing. Yet, today, we are still reporting about whistleblowers from around the country claiming of ghost clinics, secret wait lists, and other sinister behavior by staff. Sadly, nothing seems to have changed.