It’s been two years since the last time news broke about Veterans’ Affairs (VA) falsifying the wait time for vets, and according to a new analysis from USA Today, the problem persists. Employees on the front lines shorten the times to make the facilities look good on paper; if they don’t, they’re sometimes berated and harassed by their bosses. Nevertheless, a real solution to the problem may be within reach.
USA Today reports that they have analyzed 70 investigation reports regarding VA facilities after multiple inquiries and Freedom of Information Act requests. Their conclusion is that employees at 40 facilities in 19 states and Puerto Rico falsified wait times for vets in some way. In some cases, the record manipulation has been occurring for 10 years, in others just a few years.
It’s hardly the first time VA bosses and schedulers were caught falsifying times.
In 2005, the inspector general discovered that schedulers were inappropriately booking appointments. The government initiated a national re-education plan and retrained the schedulers.
Then in 2010, investigators learned that schedulers were “gaming” the system to make it look like facilities were meeting their performance goals for wait times. As a result, the government retrained the schedulers.
Then in 2014, investigators found that VA facilities created false waiting lists. On paper the facilities looked like they were meeting vets needs promptly, but in reality, many suffered long delays in receiving care and multiple deaths were linked to the scandal. The government retrained the schedulers.
Now in 2016, the problem persists in various forms, but always to falsify wait times to make VA facilities and bosses look good. The agency claims they have retrained thousands of schedulers to fix the problem.
After the 2014 scandal, President Barack Obama released a statement detailing the “sacred duty” to ensure vets get the benefits they were promised according to CBS News.
“It’s been one of the causes of my presidency. And now that we’ve ended the war in Iraq, and as our war in Afghanistan ends as well, we have to work even harder as a nation to make sure all our veterans get the benefits and opportunities they’ve earned. They’ve done their duty, and they ask nothing more than that this country does ours – now and for decades to come.”
With less than a year left in Obama’s presidency, he might have to act fast, but the problem is still complicated.
USA Today found that in seven states — Arkansas, California, Delaware, Illinois, New York, Texas and Vermont — supervisors directly instructed the schedulers to falsify the wait times so they could meet performance goals. In other situations, the bosses would not explicitly tell the workers to manipulate the times, but they created an environment of harassment when they didn’t. Schedulers in Harlingen, Texas, complained that they were berated for recording accurately.
Then in some cases, the schedulers kept secondary lists of vets needing care outside the normal scheduling list — a throwback to the 2014 scandal.
The agency said that some of the cases exposed by USA Today were from over a year ago, and the agency has already taken disciplinary action against 29 employees because of the findings. The VA’s undersecretary for health Dr. David Shulkin also claims they’ve increased capacity with 14,000 new providers and additional hours in the evening and weekend.
Still, Shea Wilkes, a social worker and director of a network of whistleblowers within the agency, says the problem won’t change until the culture changes.
“Until the VA decides it truly wants to change its corrupt and poor culture, those who work on the front lines and possess the true knowledge relating to the VA’s continued data manipulation will remain quiet and in hiding because of fear of workplace harassment and retaliation.”
A new pilot program that allows vets to schedule their own appointments might be the best hope of preventing falsified wait times. It’s currently in 10 facilities but might be rolled out nationally soon.
[Photo by Kent Nishimura/Getty Images]