Pittsburgh VA moves to whittle patient backlog

WASHINGTON -- One day after two members of Congress found out about a backlogged waiting list and demanded action, the Veterans Affairs Pittsburgh Healthcare System has contacted about half of the 636 veterans stuck on the list, scheduled appointments for about 100 of them and made multiple attempts to reach the rest, a spokesman said Friday.

Some veterans had been on the list since 2012. Reps. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, and Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, are calling for an outside audit.

The congressmen learned of the in-processing backlog Thursday as VA Secretary Eric Shinseki was preparing to resign over allegations that VA facilities in Phoenix and elsewhere were keeping two sets of records to hide the size of wait lists.

The congressmen said it doesn't appear that the problems at the Pittsburgh VA mirrored those at the center of the controversy in Phoenix.

Rather, they were told in a briefing Friday evening that the problem was traced to a single employee who maintained the list of New Enrollee Appointment Requests -- dubbed NEARs.

The NEARs list consists of veterans who have registered with the VA but have not yet received a first appointment with primary care, said Mark Ray, Pittsburgh VA spokesman.

Mr. Doyle and Mr. Murphy did not know the level of the employee in charge of the NEARs, but both said that a supervisor should have recognized the problem before the list became unwieldy.

Once employees have certified eligibility for benefits, they should have moved the names from that list to active case files, Mr. Murphy said. That didn't happen.

Now Mr. Murphy wants to know whether the employee involved received any bonuses under a system that rewards workers for clearing active case files. And he wants to know whether employees of other VA facilities may also be parking veterans on the NEARs list to keep their caseloads low and qualify for bonuses.

"There's a possibility this is happening all over the country," Mr. Murphy said. "If there's a cash value for clearing their desk, then it may turn out this is happening all over. There are a lot of questions."

VA officials in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.

Leaders of the Pittsburgh VA told Mr. Murphy and Mr. Doyle they didn't know the NEARs list existed until three weeks ago and then quickly began working to clear it.

"To their credit, they jumped on it as soon as they found out, but how they didn't know about this list -- I just don't get that," Mr. Murphy said. "There are a lot of pieces that don't fit. Somebody had to know."

Mr. Ray said VA employees began calling the veterans on the list Thursday morning.

"Our commitment is to get everyone on the list who wants an appointment an appointment in the next two weeks," Mr. Ray said. "Or, if they don't want it in the next two weeks, whenever they want it."

Of the 335 veterans reached, 130 wanted a primary care appointment, Mr. Ray said. As of Friday evening, VA staff had scheduled appointments for approximately 100 of those veterans.

Sixty-nine veterans on the list said they had not been seeking appointments but merely wanted to get their names in the VA system in case they needed care in the future, the congressmen learned in a briefing Friday. Eighty-eight said they never expected to use the VA health care system but registered because they wanted to receive an identification card to be eligible for department store discounts. About 90 asked to have their names removed from the NEARs list because they no longer wanted appointments.

The VA plans to mail certified letters to the approximately 300 veterans who did not have accurate phone numbers on record or who didn't answer three calls, Mr. Ray said.

After being briefed by VA officials, Mr. Doyle said no one reached so far required an appointment for acute care.

"There wasn't anybody who had a serious injury or illness because those people would have been brought through the emergency system. This was all for primary care," he said.

But Mr. Murphy said it won't be known until after their primary care appointments whether they have a pressing medical need that should have been given faster attention.

"We will review it to see if there's been any harm," Mr. Murphy said.

He and Mr. Doyle want independent auditors to take a close look at the NEARs list and the Pittsburgh VA's protocols.

"Given the well-founded lack of trust veterans have in the VA right now, we urge an independent evaluation of wait times in Pittsburgh," they wrote in a joint statement. "Anything less than full cooperation is completely unacceptable to the full extent. We want answers -- and we want all veterans to have the best possible treatment they have earned through their service to our country."

Mr. Doyle expects the audit will find a need for improvement but not evidence of malfeasance.

"There's absolutely no allegation like that that we're aware of. There are no problems a la Phoenix in Pittsburgh," Mr. Doyle said. "It's not a Phoenix situation. There's been no allegation that anything's been altered or doctored."

To schedule an initial primary care appointment, Pittsburgh area veterans should call 412-822-3000 from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays. Today and Sunday, calls also will be accepted at 412-822-2419 and 412-822-2390.

Washington Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello: tmauriello@post-gazette.com, 703-996-9292 or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets. Brett Sholtis: bsholtis@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581. First Published May 30, 2014 9:32 AM

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