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NM VA system gets head start on changes

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — As the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Office of Inspector General continues doling out 77 “administrative summaries” of wait-time investigations at VA medical facilities across the country, the New Mexico VA Health Care System is already addressing problems it anticipates will be noted in the OIG’s upcoming report about it.

“While we have yet to receive a summary from the OIG regarding our specific, on-site inspection at the Raymond G. Murphy VA Medical Center, we have taken several steps in order to reduce patient wait times,” Bill Armstrong, public affairs specialist for the NMVAHCS, said last week by email.

Those efforts include participation in two nationwide VA “access stand downs” held Nov. 14, 2015, and Feb. 27, he said.

“A team of clinical leaders, administrators and volunteers were on site to reach out to all veterans identified as having the most important and acute needs to make sure they could be seen either in VA or in the community,” Armstrong said, adding, “We will continue to strive for all veterans to have safe, high-quality, personalized, and timely care wherever they receive their health services.”

The 77 investigations were prompted by a wave of complaints that followed revelations in spring 2014 that managers at the Phoenix VA Medical Center had manipulated reports on how long veterans were waiting for treatment. Investigations conducted by the OIG’s Office of Investigations found that some veterans waited for months – and sometimes years – for treatment.

Subsequent investigations revealed that some VA mangers received performance bonuses based on the falsified wait time reports.

The Journal reported in May 2014 that up to 3,000 patients at the Raymond G. Murphy VA Medical Center spent months on an “alternative list” while waiting to be assigned a primary care doctor but were not included on the medical center’s official “wait” list.

Interim administrator Dr. James Robbins, who temporarily replaced director George Marnell after he retired at the end of April 2014, said at the time that the affected patients had not been informed that the doctor they were temporarily assigned to was an administrator who didn’t treat patients, and that the practice was being reviewed.

Allegations that VA schedulers in Albuquerque were directed by management to show patient appointment dates in the computer system as being within two weeks of the date desired – even though the actual appointment was sometimes weeks or months away – were found credible by an in internal investigator assigned by Marnell.

But the unidentified investigator determined that there was no “credible evidence” that managers had directed the records manipulation.

The New Mexico VA Health Care System serves veterans in New Mexico, southern Colorado and West Texas. It operates the Raymond G. Murphy VA Medical Center in Albuquerque and outpatient clinics in Alamogordo, Artesia, Española, Farmington, Gallup, Las Vegas, Raton, Santa Fe, Silver City, Taos, Truth or Consequences and Durango, Colo. Some of those clinics are operated by contractors.

Under pressure from the VA to speed up its investigations and findings and to be more transparent in its dealings, the OIG released its first 11 reports covering multiple VA facilities in Florida on Feb. 29.

As of Friday, it has released a total of 37 reports, covering facilities in Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Minnesota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas and West Virginia.

The agency said that once all 77 of the initial administrative summaries are released, it will begin releasing the reports for dozens of ongoing wait-time investigations at other facilities.

OIG spokswoman Megan J. VanLandingham said last week that there is no scheduled order of release for the remaining reports.

VA reported that 52 of the initial 77 administrative summaries found some type of scheduling irregularities. In some instances, the OIG referred its reports to VA’s Office of Accountability Review, which was set up in 2014 “to ensure leadership accountability for improprieties related to patient scheduling and access to care, whistle-blower retaliation, and related matters that impact public trust in VA,” according to a VA fact sheet.

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