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Albuquerque VA manager in wait times scandal was promoted

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

A business manager identified in a VA Office of Inspector General investigation as actively encouraging schedulers to “misreport” veteran appointment wait times was promoted to a top post at the Raymond G. Murphy VA Medical Center in Albuquerque this year while the results of the inquiry were pending, the Journal has learned.

Julie Dreike had risen to acting associate director – the second in command in the leadership chart on a Department of Veterans Affairs website – but after the OIG report was released June 24, her photo and new title were removed from the website, which on Friday showed the position as “vacant.”

Medical Center Director Andrew Welch told the Journal on Friday that he didn’t know of the results of the OIG investigation until a report was made public two weeks ago.

The report was actually completed a year earlier, and was forwarded to a VA entity recently created amid the wait-time scandal in 2014 to ensure accountability from VA leadership.

Without mentioning Dreike as the former business manager identified in the OIG report, Welch said Friday that he wasn’t aware there was an “active investigation” involving her when he oversaw her promotion to acting associate director, effective April 28.

Dreike was business manager of VA ambulatory care in New Mexico when allegations were first reported to a VA OIG Hotline in September 2013 that schedulers were being forced to falsify appointment records. By the end of that year, Dreike was promoted to chief of the VA Medical Center’s health administration service.

Welch said he asked Dreike to return to her former post as chief of the health administration service because the OIG report raised issues related to the health administration service. That service, according to a VA website, oversees clerical functions, including medical records management.

A VA Medical Center spokeswoman said Dreike was “not available for comment” Friday. Journal efforts to reach her at her Albuquerque home and by email were unsuccessful.

Her salary as business manager in fiscal year 2013, the most recent for which the information was available Friday, was $90,000 plus a bonus of $2,000.

Dreike’s salary in new positions was unavailable.

The OIG began looking into allegations of falsification of appointment records nationwide when reports surfaced that wait time data for veterans seeking appointments was changed to give the appearance of better than actual performance. The scandal led to national audits and the resignation of then-VA Secretary Eric Shinseki in 2014.

Here and elsewhere, OIG investigators found that medical appointment records were changed to show the “desired date” for future appointments was the “actual date” of the appointments – a method that hid long waits for care by showing zero wait times.

In a six-page administrative summary, the OIG concluded: “The investigation substantiated the allegation concerning desired dates. A long-standing practice of misreporting desired appointment dates was occurring. Two VA officials – a nurse manager and a business manager – were identified as having played an active role in encouraging this activity.”

In June 2015, the OIG referred its New Mexico findings to the VA Office of Accountability Review, which can conduct its own inquiry and mete out disciplinary action.

Dreike’s resume also includes serving as district director of U.S. Rep. Heather Wilson’s district office in Albuquerque, and serving as quality manager for the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department while Wilson headed the agency from 1995 to 1998.

Welch took over as head of the VA Medical Center in New Mexico about 18 months ago.

VA Medical Center officials say they didn’t wait for the outcome of the OIG inquiry before implementing reforms.

With an increase in staff and the opening of extended clinic hours, the current average wait time to see a medical provider in New Mexico’s VA health system is 3.36 days for primary care, 4.73 days for specialty care and 3.68 days for mental health care.

A VA audit in 2014 showed that more than 1,000 veterans in New Mexico had been waiting three months or more for initial medical appointments. Patients seeking primary care in New Mexico were waiting an average of 46 days, with the wait for specialty care averaging nearly two months. New patients seeking mental health care waited an average of 38 days.

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