VA Exec Tasked With Cleaning Up Book-Cooking Scandal Manipulated Data In Old Job

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Luke Rosiak Investigative Reporter
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Soon after Americans learned that dozens of veterans had died while waiting for appointments to get needed healthcare at the Department of Veterans Affairs Phoenix hospital, agency officials said Deborah Amdur, who until then was running a VA hospital in Vermont, was the woman to end the scandal.

During her time running the White River Junction Vermont VA hospital, however, the number of veterans recorded as having wait times of zero days went from 49 percent to an obviously too-good-to-be-true 96 percent.

The same week Amdur took over the Phoenix hospital, her superiors saw papers confirming the Vermont hospital had the same issues with wait-time falsification — with equally deadly results — as Phoenix.

Even so, Amdur was heralded as the best choice to clean up the Phoenix hospital, the notorious epicenter of the nationwide scandal in which records were manipulated to ensure that managers got performance bonuses and that no one would know veterans were waiting months to see a doctor.

Amdur served as director of the Vermont hospital beginning in January 2013. For years before she took over, the facility “was in the red” for the performance measure “Same Day Access With [Primary Care Provider].” When she took over, the facility’s rate was 49 percent.

Six months after Amdur took the reins, the reported rate rose rapidly until it was at 96 percent. Recent records show that “more than half of the total schedulers (152 out of 293) … entered the appointment date as the desired date 100 percent of the time.”

Anyone who saw those figures would have known it is not credible that any hospital system — especially one that frequently asks for more money because it lacks doctors — would see every patient the exact day the patient preferred.

In an inspector general’s (IG) report made public April 4, a litany of schedulers at White River told identical stories about being instructed during Amdur’s tenure to game the data to show that veterans were given instant appointments. Those who didn’t were told they would be punished. Multiple levels of supervisors enforced the instructions, all the way up to at least the patient care chief.

Amdur started as the Phoenix hospital’s top official Dec. 14, 2015. The IG’s findings about White River Junction manipulation were sent to VA’s Office of Accountability Review for punishment December 15.

VA officials are typically aware of the general thrust of IG investigations and are given draft reports prior to their release to the media and the public. A VA spokesman refused to tell The Daily Caller News Foundation when agency leaders received a draft copy or why Amdur’s transfer wasn’t cancelled because of the findings.

A White River Junction scheduler said she “was instructed by both her former and current supervisors to enter the appointment date as the desired date so that it looked like the patient had no wait time. If schedulers did not do it this way, it was brought to their attention and they were told to go back in and fix it. Both supervisors told her the wait time had to be zero. The supervisors told her if she did it incorrectly three times, it would go into her record and affect her performance review.”

In May 2014, the scheduler blew the whistle, and her boss then “intimidated” her, the report says.

A call center employee said the “the chief of Primary Care wanted these numbers to be at zero.” This means if a veteran wanted an appointment as soon as possible but could only be booked two months out, they were to write that the veteran actually preferred an appointment two months out.

A social worker told Amdur on May 5, 2014 that a patient died of sleep apnea “due to prolonged wait times.” Amdur “initiated a review” that found that “there was no significant delay by VA that appeared to have had an effect on the patient’s death.”

Hospital management also had a spreadsheet of 10 other complaints from veterans and Congress about delays, but dismissed all but one.

Amdur told the IG that in May 2014, a scheduler told her that the practice was to make it “so that the desired date equaled the existing appointment date.” Amdur “asked her chief of Quality Management to conduct a fact-finding.”

Amdur held a meeting May 20, 2014 where managers told clerks it had all been a “misperception.” But clerks told her they were not satisfied with the explanation and would not back down or keep quiet. Amdur then told her boss, the regional director, and they told the IG, who began the review.

Even though the rank-and-file employees told identical tales, and records confirmed them, high-level supervisors “all denied knowledge of a systemic practice of canceling appointments,” the IG reported.

A former scheduler told the IG that in “2010–2012, she was aware of at least six patients who died while awaiting care” at White River Junction.

It was reported last year that Amdur also lied to Sen. [crscore]Kelly Ayotte[/crscore] about a veteran being given recalled drugs and then withheld the paperwork that proved it for five years. Amdur apologized to the senator.

Even though all of this was in writing in official documents, when Arizona media brought up the report following her appointment, Amdur said “absolutely not. I would never mislead a member of Congress.”

Weeks later, Arizona Sen. [crscore]John McCain[/crscore] said she was being uncooperative. The Arizona Republican and former Vietnam prisoner of war also said Amdur was skipping out on meetings with Congress.

Around the time it emerged that she had covered up damaging documents and provided false information about it to Congress, the VA appointed her to a three-person Administrative Investigative Board in charge of doling out accountability at the Tomah, Wisconsin hospital — where VA doctors recklessly sedated patients with deadly combinations of drugs because it was easier than treating underlying symptoms.

The appointment was odd because, if she didn’t order the wait-time manipulation at White River Junction, she was oblivious to what was occurring right under her nose. But her job on the Tomah board was to use the panel’s investigative powers to find facts and ensure that managers were punished, not, as she has been, promoted.

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