While U.S. military veterans have been forced to endure long waits for medical care, employees of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) have obscured delays by altering appointment data, a federal watchdog testified Thursday.
At one primary care clinic, examiners from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) were told, the scheduler changed recorded dates to show that there were no long wait times, the GAO’s Debra A. Draper said at a congressional hearing held by the House Committee on Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations
At another clinic, GAO officials heard that health care providers were making it appear that the waits for specialty care were within the VA’s goal of no more than 14 days, Draper said.
And, at a third clinic, the staff was logging the desired dates for appointments as if they matched the actual dates, creating the appearance that there was zero wait time, she said.
“In reality, there was a six- to eight-week backlog at least,” Draper said.
The VA’s unreliable measuring “has resulted in a discrepancy between the positive wait time performance VA has reported and veterans’ actual experiences,” Draper said in written testimony.
Delays have long plagued veterans who depend on the VA for medical treatment. At Thursday’s hearing, Subcommittee members excoriated VA officials for allowing the problem to go unsolved.
“According to VA documentation, in many instances veterans were harmed or died due to delays in getting treatment,” Subcommittee Chairman Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) said.
Coffman said the VA has a backlog of hundreds of thousands of appointments.
One Subcommittee member described a veteran seeking mental health treatment who had to wait six months for an initial physical exam. Another lawmaker recounted that a veteran ultimately paid for eye surgery outside the VA system because scheduling it within the VA was so difficult.
To study the issue, the GAO visited medical centers in Los Angeles; Washington, DC; Dayton, Ohio; and Fort Harrison, Montana.
The GAO’s Draper said it is unclear how long veterans are waiting for care because the VA’s numbers are so unreliable. The numbers are used in assessing the VA’s performance and its budget, creating incentives to make them look good, Draper said.
Thursday’s testimony came one day after a former VA epidemiologist told the same House panel that the VA has suppressed research that could link veterans’ medical problems to their wartime exposure to hazardous substances.
In addition to waiting for doctor appointments, veterans have been waiting hundreds of days for their disability benefits to be approved.
At Thursday’s hearing, a senior VA official said the Department has had difficulty figuring out a good way to measure the timeliness of medical care but is implementing a new measure.
“Let me first just express regret for the incidence of breakdown of care that was described,” said William C. Schoenhard, Deputy Under Secretary for Health for Operations and Management. The VA’s own research shows “there is need for improvement,” he added.