Atlanta’s VA hospital and four other facilities in Georgia will be investigated for long wait times and possible records tampering to obscure the problem, the Department of Veterans Affairs said Monday.
The VA has been under fire in recent weeks over revelations that thousands of veterans waited as long as several months to be seen by doctors. An audit released by the agency Monday showed a mixed record at the Georgia sites, with new patients waiting weeks or months while established patients waited only a few days.
At the Atlanta VA, new patients waited an average of 64 days for primary care, 53 days for specialty care and 27 days for mental health care. Established patients waited an average of five days for primary care, four days for specialty care and two days for mental health care.
In addition to the Atlanta hospital, facilities flagged by the audit for further investigation include Savannah, Dublin, Augusta, and Smyrna/Austell.
Local vets welcomed the scrutiny of a system that they say has been letting them down for years.
“That’s not what we want or what Georgia veterans deserve,” said former Army nurse Lynne Rollins, state commander of the American Legion. “It certainly should be looked at.”
Anyone in the VA involved in manipulating records, she said, “needs to be weeded out.”
Based on staff responses to questionnaires, investigators will probe “scheduling and access management practices” at 112 facilities, including the five in Georgia. The audit does not make clear whether any evidence emerged of records tampering at the Georgia facilities. It does say they heard reports of such practices at a number of sites nationally.
Overall, 13 percent of scheduling staff said they were instructed to manipulate dates in the scheduling system to make the facility look better. Eight percent said they didn’t enter some appointment requests in the official scheduling system at all.
”Such practices are sufficiently pervasive to require (the) VA (to) re-examine its entire performance management system,” the audit said.
Nationally, the audit found more than 57,000 veterans who have waited 90 days or more for their first appointment. Over the past decade, 64,000 requested an appointment but were never seen. More than one-third of the hospitals and clinics covered by the audit were flagged for additional review.
Last month, as the scandal mushroomed, Eric Shinseki resigned as secretary of the embattled agency. No replacement has been named.
“We must work together to fix the unacceptable, systemic problems in accessing VA health care,” acting Secretary Sloan Gibson said Monday
According to the audit, VA administrators were caught between two opposing forces: a combination of tight budgets and inadequate staffs on one hand, and an ambitious target wait time of no more than 14 days on the other. Investigators found that some administrators responded to those pressures by instructing staff to manipulate the data to hide actual wait times.
On Monday, the VA eliminated the 14-day goal, saying it is unattainable due to increased demand and ineffective management. Demands on the nationwide health system have grown with the influx of returnees from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, combined with the aging of Baby Boom-era veterans.
Atlanta VA officials said Monday they had not been apprised of the reasons for the additional review. They have previously called current wait times unacceptable and vowed to do better.
“Atlanta’s leadership team welcomes the additional assessment to ensure that all veterans receive timely access to high quality care and to strengthen any areas that may need improvement,” facility spokesman Greg Kendall said in a statement.
Kendall also pointed to efforts under way to increase the number of available appointments, offer Saturday hours, and construct additional facilities around the metro area.
Veterans have long complained about wait times at the Atlanta VA, especially for psychiatric care. Problems in the hospital’s mental health services were thrown into sharp relief in recent years by the suicides of at least three veterans who had sought care there.
Monday, one disabled Vietnam veteran told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution he waited six months for an appointment to diagnose the cause of swelling in his legs. Eventually it was diagnosed as a blood clot, said the Atlanta vet, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal from the VA.
“I’m so pleased someone is stepping in now. We couldn’t get it done until somebody did,” he said.
He said he doesn’t know whether the VA doctored its records on patient wait times. “But look at their history. It’s highly probable,” he said.