Despite denials by the Department of Veteran Affairs, a whistleblower is standing by his claim that a Louisiana VA hospital maintained a secret waiting list for patient care.
According to a hospital employee named Shea Wilkes and internal emails leaked to the media, there have been wait times of up to fifteen months for appointments in the mental health department of the Overton-Brooks VA Medical Center in Shreveport, Louisiana.
Stephanie Alexander, a nurse in the hospital, emailed James Patterson, the department’s chief of staff, and Ruthie McDaniel, the operations manager, to request overtime so that employees could catch up on scheduling the backlog.
“There are multiple lists, excel sheets, papers that contain names of patients that need to be scheduled- just a few at approximately 2400 existing patients- some have not been seen in as long as 12-15 months,” said Alexander in the email.
Wilkes told The Daily Caller that 620 veterans still need appointments.
The VA denies that any such wait list exists. In an emailed statement, VA spokeswoman Sandra Franks told TheDC that all the patients in the department have been properly taken care of.
“The information contained in the Behavioral Health Interdisciplinary Program (BHIP) is utilized as a tool to assist with the management of patients who were already established in existing VA treatment programs and placed in the proper treatments teams with their current provider.”
That statement echoes denials the hospital gave to local media last week.
Wilkes, in an interview with TheDC, pushed back and said he was disappointed that hospital management refused to acknowledge the enormity of the situation.
“I am disappointed that Overton Brooks Leadership has decided to ‘cover-up’ what myself and many others know to be true. There were numerous wait lists generated due to the shortage of providers. I have heard and seen staff tell veterans they were going to put them on a wait list.
“Veterans were going up to the reception window, after they saw a non-prescribing provider, and employees were saying, ‘We don’t have a lot of providers right now. I’m going to put you on this list right here and we’ll contact you.’ They wrote the name down on a paper list, I understand that those paper lists later evolved into [an] Excel list and all lists were gathered to form one list.”
Wilkes’ concerns have been buoyed by the office of Louisiana Senator David Vitter. Vitter met with hospital management on Friday, June 27, 2014, and issued a statement to TheDC which backed up Wilkes and reiterated his call for a full VA Inspector General investigation.
“I continue to say what I’ve said for a while – these are very serious allegations that have come to light,” Vitter said, “with some meaningful evidence to back them up. So I’ll continue to push for the fullest IG investigation possible.”
Franks said the VA is not planning on reprimanding anyone as a result of the scandal and she said no veteran has been waiting fifteen months for their initial appointment.
“No patient was waiting for an appointment. It (the list referred to in the email) was not used to schedule appointments,” she said. “The Vista system is the only approved appointment system in the VA.”
Wilkes strongly disagrees.
“This is not a true statement! There are veterans waiting on appointments and have been,” he told TheDC. “Now that mental health (BHIP) has brought in several psychiatrists they are scrambling to cover themselves as veterans have gone without follow up for months.”
Wilkes said he originally made a complaint to the VAOIG about this secret waiting list in the summer of 2013 but heard nothing back. He made another complaint after news broke about the situation at the Phoenix, Arizona VA.
Wilkes said he heard back from VAOIG investigators the day after Senator Vitter sent the VAOIG’s office an initial letter asking for an investigation.
He told TheDC that he’s since hired an attorney because he believes the VAOIG is investigating him for viewing patient medical records improperly.
Ricky John, Wilkes’ attorney, told TheDC after speaking with VAOIG investigators he views his client as a target of their investigation as well.
John said the message relayed to him by the OIG’s office was: “We have concerns over how the list was acquired.” John said he’s since advised the VAOIG’s office that all communication with his client should be done through his office — standard protocol when someone is under investigation.
“I consider this investigation (the VA OIGs investigation) to be retaliation for blowing the whistle on this list,” said Wilkes, recalling a conversation he recently had with hospital management.
Wilkes said he’s also being investigated by the hospital’s privacy officer. He believes that a June 24, 2014 email from James Patterson to some hospital staff was a thinly veiled threat against speaking out.
“It is unfortunate that others are twisting this to be the lies presented in the media,” said Patterson in the email. “The misrepresentations, misinterpretations, and other propaganda are just that. I am just as sick of it as you are.”
That email was one of several Patterson sent to staff using the term “propaganda” since the story broke in the media.
Patterson didn’t respond to an email from TheDC for comment.
Wilkes told TheDC that the entire affair is evidence of a crony culture at the hospital.
“I am disappointed that Hospital Administration has turned their head to the truth,” Wilkes said. “It is the typical ‘good ole boy’ that plagues the VA system. Those ‘good ole boys’ at the top of the hierarchy do wrong and when they get caught all the ‘good ole boys’ circle the wagons and help each other cover it up.”
“There is very rarely accountability for the ‘good ole boys’ in the VA system.”