Months before Veterans Affairs hospitals in neighboring states were outed for allegedly hiding long waits for treatment, the Journal has learned, an investigation was underway at the Albuquerque VA Medical Center based on strikingly similar allegations – that VA schedulers were ordered to falsify patient appointment records.
The inquiry by the VA Office of Inspector General was triggered by employee complaints last year. But the status of the investigation was unclear this week, and a VA spokeswoman in Albuquerque wouldn’t comment about the findings.
In recent weeks, allegations of patient waiting list manipulation have been disclosed in Phoenix, Colorado and Texas. This week, a VA hospital in Illinois came under scrutiny, and an audit of all VA medical centers has been ordered by VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.
At the VA hospital in Phoenix, treatment delays are alleged to have led to the deaths of about 40 patients.
Asked about the inquiry and allegations of manipulation of patient appointment data, a VA medical center spokeswoman in Albuquerque told the Journal to file a request for the information through the Freedom of Information Act. That process can take up to 20 days to yield a response.
Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., has called for a thorough investigation of the alleged cover-up. Late Thursday he issued a press release regarding the New Mexico allegations and set up a special link on his office website to take information about the Albuquerque VA.
“In the last week, I have heard numerous reports about VA officials in New Mexico attempting to manipulate the scheduling system to cover up the extent of VA wait lists for appointments and other disturbing claims. Veterans who have been waiting for months to see a doctor deserve answers,” Udall said.
He added: “I am outraged that this scheme might be going on in New Mexico, or anywhere else in the country.”
Looking good is important to VA administrators whose performance is measured in part on how many days patients have to wait for appointments to see primary care physicians, specialists and mental health professionals.
Outstanding performance can lead to bonuses for top executives with the VA medical system. Such performance bonuses have been controversial for years.
For example, in 2012, Congress heard testimony that some VA executives may have been “gaming the system” to make it appear more veterans seeking mental health counseling were getting appointments within a required time, according to the website Military.com.
The VA awarded more than $400 million in bonuses in 2011, according to an agency breakdown obtained by Military.com. About $3.4 million went to 231 senior executive service employees, a category that includes medical center directors, the website reported.
In Albuquerque, a VA medical center spokeswoman wouldn’t immediately answer questions about the amounts of performance bonuses, if any, awarded to VA executives.
Udall said in his statement on Thursday, “If bonuses were ever given out based on false or manipulated information – the VA should take appropriate action immediately to protect taxpayers and restore integrity in the VA system.”
The Journal has learned that performance bonuses aren’t confined to upper management.
Records obtained by the Journal reveal the VA medical center in Albuquerque informed its physicians last December that 20 percent of their performance pay would be based on their limiting patient follow-up visits to less than two per year.
Some of those same VA physicians are so deluged these days, their first regular clinic appointments aren’t available until August.
In Albuquerque, the inquiry overseen by the VA Office of Inspector General’s office has focused on complaints that schedulers for outpatient clinics allegedly were told by supervisors to enter false data when scheduling a patient’s medical appointments.
That didn’t happen in all cases. But at times, the computerized record would show a patient had been seen within 14 days of the date a physician or patient wanted the appointment – when in fact the patient waited weeks or months to be seen.
Within hours of the Journal asking the VA about the scheduling allegations on May 8, Dr. Phillip Wagner, a VA medical center supervisor in Albuquerque, sent an email to VA staff advising them of an internal directive issued in June 2010. The directive mandates how patient appointments should be scheduled.
His email gave no reason for sending the 2010 directive.
Udall has expressed his outrage at reports about the VA health system in Phoenix, where officials are being accused of covering up the extent of their wait list to make it look like their backlog wasn’t as bad as it was.
Noting that New Mexico and Arizona are part of the same VA regional network, Udall asked VA Secretary Shinseki last week to broaden the investigation to New Mexico. The audit was ordered the next day.
“Veterans put their lives on the line for our freedom,” Udall said in a statement. “The backlog was shameful and it is despicable that anyone in the VA might try to cover up their own incompetence, rather than addressing the real problem.”