More than 57,000 veterans are still waiting for their first doctor appointments at Department of Veterans Affairs medical centers after at least a 90 day wait, according to a VA audit released Monday.
Over the past month, the VA conducted an internal audit of 731 VA medical centers across the country. Another 64,000 patients never received an appointment at a VA center over the past decade.
The VA is currently embroiled in a scandal sparked by secret waiting lists discovered at a Phoenix, Arizona VA medical center. Employees have been keeping veterans off official waiting lists and altering appointment requests in order to make it appear that they were closer to meeting wait-time performance standards.
Acting VA secretary Sloan Gibson, who replaced ousted former secretary Eric Shinseki, admitted last week that 18 of the 1,700 veterans excluded from an official appointment wait-list have died.
Close to 13 percent of scheduling staff interviewed said that they were told to falsify the appointment date that patients had requested in order to make wait times appears shorter. The problem is widespread — 76 percent of all VA facilities had at least one instance of direct orders to misreport requested visit dates.
Pressure to falsify wait time records were “sufficiently pervasive” to force the VA to revamp its entire system, the audit concluded.
Staff said they felt threatened or coerced into entering false appointment requests in 24 different medical sites; at another 14 VA medical centers, staff reported that they had been punished for refusing to falsify the dates or even for “expressing concerns” about doing so. The audit even noted that employees were reluctant to participate in the audit survey, for fear of being disciplined.
The audit also noted that the complicated VA scheduling process — even when workers attempted to use it properly — created confusion amongst scheduling workers. The VA is also quick to note that the agency standard which would have facilities meet a 14-day wait-time target for appointments, “was simply not attainable” due to the influx of veterans requiring care.
The audit concluded that the VA will need to review its performance management, education and communications to figure out how the VA system “conveyed” goals to compel employees to “manipulate” the scheduling process.
The latest audit comes just after independent Senator and Veterans Affairs Chairman Bernie Sanders and Republican Senator John McCain agreed last week on terms for a bill to allow veterans who are experiencing long wait times to attend private facilities instead of VA medical centers.
Acting secretary Gibson announced a series of actions the agency would take to address the wait times along with the audit and touted that the agency has contacted 50,000 patients to attempt to get them into clinics.