Senator demands independent investigation as VA scandal spreads
The chair of the Texas Senate’s veteran affairs committee on Monday called for an independent investigation into allegations that wait time data was manipulated at Department of Veterans Affairs clinics in Central Texas and San Antonio.
Sen. Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, made her comments as the burgeoning scandal over VA patient care reached the Rio Grande Valley, where a former VA doctor accused the department of delaying colonoscopies for veterans with cancer and jeopardizing veterans’ visits to non-VA specialists because the agency took so long to reimburse private providers.
In Austin, Van de Putte demanded accountability from top VA leaders over claims that scheduling clerks were trained to falsely input appointment data to make it appear that waiting times were far shorter than they really are. The VA aims to see patients within 14 days of their desired appointment dates, and medical centers are graded on their ability to hit those targets.
“It appears the motivation for the deception…was a personal pay day in the form of a VA performance bonus,” Van de Putte said. “Someone is responsible. These scheduling clerks didn’t just decide to falsify reports all over the country at the same time…The allegations show a pattern that crosses multiple clinics and shows the actions were condoned at a pretty high level.”
The claims of whistleblower Brian Turner, a VA scheduling clerk who said he saw data manipulation in Waco, Austin and San Antonio, were first reported by the American-Statesman last week.
On Monday, new allegations emerged against the VA Health Care Center in Harlingen, and officials with the VA’s Texas Valley Coastal Bend Health Care System, which oversees the facility. Dr. Richard Krugman, former associate chief of staff at the center, told investigators that “patient care was impacted by the VA’s requirements to cut costs,” according to documents obtained by the American-Statesman.
May 13 2014
WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) today announced on Fox News he has sent a letter to Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki after several reports surfaced of abuse and mismanagement in VA clinics in Texas and across the country. The letter asks several questions of Sec. Shinseki, and calls on the Secretary to provide answers during his testimony before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Thursday, May 15. A video of Sen. Cornyn’s Fox News interview regarding VA failures can be viewed here. Sen. Cornyn’s questions for Sec. Shinseki include:
“Can you confirm that supervisors at VA facilities in Texas have not and are not ordering employees to ‘game the system’ by concealing wait times?
“Can you confirm that veterans diagnosed with cancer of any kind that requires chemotherapy are provided that treatment in a timely manner by the VA?
“Can you confirm that any bonuses or pay raises are on hold for senior leaders at VA facilities in San Antonio, Austin, Waco, Harlingen, and all VA facilities where similar allegations have been made?
“Can you confirm that staff at facilities currently under investigation for allegations of falsified reports will not be assigned to investigate other VA facilities?
“Can you confirm that documents are being preserved at all Texas VA facilities?”
The full text of the letter is below and attached.
May 13, 2014
The Honorable Eric K. Shinseki
Secretary of Veterans Affairs
810 Vermont Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20420
Dear Secretary Shinseki:
I write to reiterate my deep concern regarding the numerous, troubling reports that continue to surface regarding mistreatment of our nation’s veterans at Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) facilities across the country. These reports indicate that incidents—including the withholding of life-saving care from some veterans—were the result of a culture of cover-ups, indifference as to the health and welfare of our veterans, and a complete lack of accountability that pervades your Department. Yet, the Administration’s response to these troubling revelations has been lethargic and its inaction puzzling.
During your testimony before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Thursday, I call on you to provide direct, clear answers to these questions:
1. According to recent reports, you have ordered a “face-to-face audit” of all Department of Veterans Affairs clinics. Can you describe in detail how you intend for this audit to be conducted, its timeline for completion, and what measures are being taken to ensure these audits are conducted in an independent and transparent manner? If the allegations are substantiated, what type of action are you willing to take to right these wrongs, and how will the responsible officials be held accountable?
2. A whistleblower in Texas claims that during his time as a scheduling clerk for VA facilities in Austin, San Antonio, and Waco, he was directed by supervisors to hide true wait times by inputting false records into the VA’s scheduling system. VA officials in San Antonio deny this, while VA officials in Austin claim employees may have been discouraged from using the electronic scheduling tool that would reveal long wait times, but that those orders did not come from “executive leadership.” Can you confirm that supervisors at VA facilities in Texas have not and are not ordering employees to “game the system” by concealing wait times?
3. An Austin-based surgeon recently contacted my office to inform me he is not accepting any further subcontracts from the VA due to failures in patient care that he has personally witnessed. Specifically, he saw a veteran in August of 2013 who was referred to him by the VA after they detected a lesion they suspected was cancerous. Already two months had lapsed between the time they detected the lesion and the time he saw the veteran. This surgeon performed a biopsy and diagnosed it as laryngeal cancer. He informed the VA that the veteran needed immediate chemotherapy – that they had a real chance to treat his cancer if they started chemotherapy right away. Almost two months later, he followed up on his case only to learn the VA never provided chemotherapy, with no good excuse as to why. The veteran died several days later. Can you confirm that veterans diagnosed with cancer of any kind that requires chemotherapy are provided that treatment in a timely manner by the VA?
4. A whistleblower in South Texas who formerly served as associate chief of staff for the VA Texas Valley Coastal Bend Health Care System in Harlingen, TX, told the Washington Examiner this week that roughly 15,000 patients who should have had the potentially life-saving colonoscopy procedure either did not receive it or were forced to wait longer than they should have. He also claims that approximately 1,800 records were purged to give the false appearance of eliminating a backlog. Can you confirm that veterans requiring colonoscopies to detect cancer are provided with the procedure in a timely manner?
5. In 2012, VA medical facilities in Central Texas reported that 96 percent of veterans were seen by providers within 14 days of their preferred appointment date. In the South Texas region that includes San Antonio, the statistics were even more impressive: 97 percent of veterans were seen within two weeks, according to annual performance reports. Can you produce documents that show the original dates of veterans’ requests for appointments for 2012?
6. According to public records, the director of the Phoenix VA hospital, where news investigations have discovered at least 40 veterans died while waiting for care and languishing on secret lists, received more than $9,000 in bonus pay in 2013. Can you confirm that any bonuses or pay raises are on hold for senior leaders at VA facilities in San Antonio, Austin, Waco, Harlingen, and all VA facilities where similar allegations have been made?
7. My staff attended a Quarterly Congressional Staffer and Veterans Service Organization Representative Meeting at the Central Texas Veterans Health Care System (CTVHS) Friday, May 9, 2014. Sallie Houser-Hanfelder, director of the Central Texas Veterans Health Care System, told meeting attendees that, as part of the face-to-face audits you have ordered, a quality systems manager from CTVHS would be sent to another VA facility to assist with investigations there. Can you confirm that staff at facilities currently under investigation for allegations of falsified reports will not be assigned to investigate other VA facilities?
8. A former VA employee at the VA Greater Los Angeles Medical Center told the Daily Caller that employees at the Center destroyed veterans’ medical files in a systematic attempt to eliminate backlogged veteran medical exam requests. The former employee said, “The waiting list counts against the hospital’s efficiency. He said the chief of the Center’s Radiology Department initiated an “ongoing discussion in the department” to cancel exam requests and destroy veterans’ medical files so that no record of the exam requests would exist, thus artificially reducing the backlog. In addition, you have been subpoenaed by the House Veterans Affairs Committee over concerns by Chairman Jeff Miller that evidence in Phoenix may have been destroyed after the Committee issued a document-preservation order on April 9. A top VA official testified on April 24 that a spreadsheet of patient appointment records, which may have been a “secret list” proving misconduct, was shredded or discarded. Can you confirm that documents are being preserved at all Texas VA facilities?
I look forward to your prompt and detailed responses to these pressing questions.
United States Senator
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