Jack Kelly: Shame on the Veterans Administration

Rife with problems, it's covering them up instead of fixing them

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At least 40 veterans on a secret waiting list at the Veterans Administration hospital in Phoenix have died while waiting months — in some cases a year or more — for appointments, a whistleblower told CNN.

The secret waiting list was a scheme by managers to get around the VA rule that patients should see a doctor within 30 days of making an appointment, CNN was told by Sam Foote, a doctor who recently retired after practicing for 24 years at the Phoenix hospital.

When vets asked for appointments, their requests weren’t entered in the official computer system, he said. Their data were kept instead on a secret list. Only when an appointment with a physician could be scheduled within 14 days was it entered into the official system.

This gave “the appearance they were improving greatly the waiting times, when in fact they were not,” Dr. Foote said.

If a vet died while waiting for an appointment, his or her name was deleted from the secret list. There was no official record he or she had ever asked for treatment.

Before airing the story April 24, CNN obtained emails indicating senior managers knew of and approved the practice. Other “high level officials” corroborated Dr. Foote’s account, CNN said.

The director of the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care System received a $169,900 salary plus a $9,345 bonus last year.

At least 19 vets at other VA hospitals have died because of delays in simple medical screenings such as colonoscopies or endoscopies, CNN reported in January.

Nor is Phoenix the only VA hospital where there has been a systematic effort to conceal long wait times.

Officials at the Greater Los Angeles Medical Center began in 2009 to destroy records of requests for medical exams that were more than a year old, charged Oliver Mitchell, a former patient services assistant. The Daily Caller obtained a recording of a November 2008 meeting that confirms Mr. Mitchell’s charge.

Systemwide, more than 1.5 million backlogged orders for medical treatment or tests have been canceled, the Washington Examiner reported Thursday.

Claims for service-connected disabilities should be processed within 125 days, according to VA guidelines. The average wait time has stretched to 273 days, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America said in August. Yet two-thirds of claims processors received performance bonuses in 2011, a year in which the backlog of claims ballooned by 155 percent.

There were nearly three times as many claims processors in 2012 as in 1997, noted Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. Each field worker processed, on average, 135 claims in 1997, he said. In 2012, just 73 claims per field worker were processed.

During that time the backlog increased more than 600 percent — and the VA executive in charge of processing disability benefits received nearly $60,000 in “performance” bonuses.

Doctors who provided poor treatment — including one whose license to practice medicine had expired and another who failed to reach 12 of 13 performance goals — were awarded millions of dollars in bonuses, the Government Accountability Office said in a report last July.

A senior financial manager resigned after a colleague who was riding in the government vehicle he was driving while drunk was killed in an accident. A few months later, the VA rehired him at a six-figure salary.

“They don’t want to seem to hold anyone accountable for doing anything wrong,” Rep. Miller said at a hearing in April. “The VA needs to quit being afraid of disciplining people and firing them.”

The VA’s leaders are trying harder to cover up than to clean up massive negligence and corruption. The House Veterans Affairs Committee has counted 30 instances just this year in which journalists seeking information have been stonewalled.

After the ABC affiliate in Raleigh, N.C., discovered in January a privacy breach on the VA website, reporters asked the VA how serious the breach was and what was being done to correct it. They’re still waiting for answers.

When reporters for the ABC affiliate in Denver asked about inadequate parking at the VA Medical Center there, the public information officer hung up the phone. “The VA’s  . . . really thumbing their nose at us, but also thumbing their nose at Congress,” said CNN’s Drew Griffin.

Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (jkelly@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1476).

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