New evidence that the Department of Veterans Affairs deleted necessary medical requests from veterans

Patrick Howley | Political Reporter

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) deleted veteran medical records despite its claim to the contrary, according to documents obtained by The Daily Caller.

TheDC reported Monday that former VA Los Angeles Medical Center employee Oliver Mitchell was instructed to help cancel backlogged veteran medical exam requests during a coordinated process that began at the facility in March 2009. Audio of an internal VA meeting obtained by TheDC confirms that VA officials in Los Angeles intentionally canceled backlogged patient exam requests.

The abuses occurred during a period in which VA offices across the country were “instructed to mass purge” backlogged veteran exam requests, according to an inspector general report obtained by TheDC.

VA confirmed that backlogged exam requests in Los Angeles were deleted but claimed that veterans who still needed exams did not have their exam requests or records deleted.

“VA Greater Los Angeles (GLA) Healthcare System did not destroy patients’ personal medical records from VA’s electronic health record system.  GLA did identify that there were large numbers of very old imaging requests in the system. As part of appropriate patient care processes, GLA did perform a carefully planned project of administratively clearing old imaging requests after an extensive review of these studies,” VA said in a statement after the revelations were published. “…As a result,  designated staff begin discontinuing old imaging requests after individual review.  If the request indicated that the study was a follow-up study for some future date, the request was not discontinued.”

But Mitchell says that in Los Angeles, exam requests that were found to still be needed were “definitely” destroyed.

“I know that it’s false,” Mitchell said in response to the VA statement. “Trust me, there was no selective review. There was a list that went back to the ’90s and they just went through and canceled each one, including ones that were valid.”

The list was distributed at the facility by Dr. Suzie El-Saden, who was then head of radiology.

“When the exam request comes to the [facility] we have 30 days to complete. If we go past the 30 days that we’re allowed, those numbers start to count against the agency,” Mitchell explained. “When they cancel an order, they closed the orders on the active file so that it doesn’t count against the numbers…When they close the orders, the patients are not notified nor are the doctors who ordered [the exam] notified. Once it’s closed, it’s closed. It cannot be reopened” even for use in later disability claim reviews.

A February 25 claim by a veteran confirmed that claims by veterans still needing help were “deleted” by the VA Los Angeles Medical Center.

“As you know, my visit to the Regional Office was to prove to the Department of Veterans Affairs that I am, in fact, alive and not deceased. That my Veterans file stating that I died on November 20th 2012 is decidedly incorrect,” veteran Richard Sorci wrote in a letter to Rep. Buck McKeon, which was obtained by TheDC.

“Yesterday I asked my caseworker, Mr. Steve Mangum if I received a Determination/Rating from the November 7th examination. I was told that he had no idea and that my file was either deleted or placed in a basement room archive. To my ‘what’s next?’ question Mr. Mangum said that I would receive a letter in about a month scheduling me for another Doctors appointment and that I was basically starting all over again and I should allow 7 to 9 months more to process my claim,” Sorci wrote.

In 2008, the El Centro Family Health Center in New Mexico, which was under contract with VA to provide medical care for veterans until 2011, destroyed veteran records dating back ten years, according to a former El Centro employee who spoke to the group Concerned Veterans for America. The employee, who was fired after reporting the abuses to a supervisor, later reported the issue to the VA IG and directly to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.

VA acknowledged the abuse at El Centro, but its claim for the number of veterans affected conflicted with information provided to TheDC.

“Nearly 6 years ago, in 2008, leadership at the New Mexico VA Health Care System (NMVAHCS) learned from a contract clinic employee of a non-VA provider, El Centro Family Health (ECFH), that ECFH had inappropriately stored ECFH paper medical records for some VA patients and non-VA patients, and also had destroyed some ECFH medical records according to State of New Mexico guidelines but not VA guidelines.  Immediately upon discovering the inappropriate actions, the existing records were secured…” VA told TheDC.

Republican Rep. Dan Benishek met with Shinseki to address various concerns with the agency including the deletion of the exam requests at the VA Los Angeles Medical Center.

“While having a constructive discussion with Secretary Shinseki about improving care for our veterans, Dr. Benishek reminded him of the letter sent by him and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, and asked the Secretary for the VA to get to the bottom of the recent media reports that VA officials allegedly intentionally destroyed medical records of veterans in order to ease the amount of backlogged claims,” Benishek spokesman Kyle Bonini told TheDC.

Earlier this week, Republican Sen. Tom Coburn delivered a speech on the U.S. Senate floor quoting Mitchell’s claims and calling for reform at VA.

“Is the answer to open this up to another 16 million veterans? Or is the answer to improve the efficiency, transparency, quality and outcomes of the present VA system before we go about expanding this system to people who are otherwise covered?,” Sen. Coburn said in his speech.

“Mr. Mitchell, when he tried to sound the alarm on the VA’s deliberate attempt to fraudulently reduce the backlog, he was transferred out of his department and eventually terminated from his job. After he contacted congress in 2011, two months later when the VA found out about it, he was fired,” Coburn continued.

“So do we really want transparency in what we’re doing? Do we really want to know what’s going on? Do we really want to fix the system? Do we really want to offer health care to veterans? And make it equal to what they can get in the private sector? Or do we want to say we want to offer all these new benefits at the same time we’re not meeting our commitment on the benefits that we’ve already promised. That’s the game that’s being played,” Coburn said.

Mitchell received an April 30, 2013 letter from the U.S. Office of Special Counsel stating that OIG found in November 2009 that “all imaging services across the country were instructed to mass purge all outstanding imaging orders for studies older than six months, where the procedure was no longer needed” and that “patient imaging requests found to still be valid were scheduled. … Approval was granted for this process by the MEC [Medical Executive Committee], and in collaboration with the Service Chiefs and/or Careline Directors within the health-care system.”

“The IG’s report said this was a nationwide issue, but I know when we were having our meeting we weren’t talking nationwide — we were talking about our department,” Mitchell said.

This post has been updated with new information

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