Vets Face Long Waits To Leave VA For Private Care

Luke Rosiak | Investigative Reporter

Frustrated veterans who ask to leave the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) system because of lengthy treatment delays are now forced to wait even longer for a government scheduler to provide private healthcare alternatives, according to internal data reviewed by The Daily Caller News Foundation.

The data — compiled by VA officials — vividly demonstrates the power of an entrenched civil service bureaucracy and a federal employee union to block laws passed by Congress to ensure that veterans can get private health care when government wait times are too long. Congress acted in 2014 after the nation learned that veterans were dying while waiting for care in government hospitals and created a pathway to private care for VA patients.

But agency managers and leaders of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) union, which represents most VA employees, opposed the private care option — known as the Choice Card — fearing that fewer veterans in the government system would mean smaller budgets and fewer government jobs.

The Choice Card program is being sabotaged from within VA.

There is a backlog of more than 150,000 veterans who have been approved to see private specialist doctors under the Choice Card program, but VA contractors are not scheduling the corresponding appointments, according to official data reviewed by TheDCNF.

Almost 50,000 of these backlogged veterans have been languishing for more than three months waiting for a Choice Card appointment to be scheduled, according to the same data. More than 65,000 have been waiting more than two months. And 90,462 of the veterans in question have been stuck in limbo longer than 30 days.

In other words, more veterans are waiting to see a private doctor than to see a VA specialist. Until a private appointment is scheduled, vets remain on both waiting lists — for a VA doctor and a non-VA one — to see whichever comes through first.

Seventy-four thousand veterans have been waiting to be scheduled with a VA specialist for more than three months. Since 50,000 of those are also on the Choice Card list, the VA set up a system that penalizes those on the list with slower access to private care than if remaining in the VA.

Officials at AFGE tried to stop Choice Card even though, despite its name, the program only gives veterans somewhere else to go when VA care is not available for more than a month or there is no VA hospital nearby.

Obama administration political appointees at VA also opposed the program. When VA leaders claimed budget shortfalls threatened closure of hospitals, they asked Congress to let them repurpose $3.3 billion originally authorized for the Choice Card program.

“More than 10,000 patients had nearly 12,000 community care consults exceeding 30 days” in Phoenix, a government report on wait times there found this month. “Community care” largely overlaps with Choice Card.

The report also found that staffers sometimes improperly removed records showing wait times after they’d been placed on a list for private care to make the in-house lists look shorter, even though the private appointments hadn’t been scheduled.

Seventy-eight percent of people seeking non-VA care were waiting more than a month, as of August, 2015, according to the report. Of the outstanding caseload that month in Phoenix, Ariz., people had been waiting to see VA doctors an average of 36 days, meaning that most of them are already eligible to seek care outside of the department.

Officials in VA’s Washington headquarters instructed hospitals to “return” the referrals, since outside scheduling takes too long, Kuauhtemoc Rodriguez, chief of specialty care at the Phoenix VA, told TheDCNF. The clock on wait-times to see a government healthcare provider went back to zero each time a referral was returned, thus giving the illusion of shorter wait times.

Two contractors, Health Net and TriWest, are involved in scheduling patients with outside doctors and paying those doctors.

“If you do qualify, TriWest is supposed to schedule you within five to seven days. That is not happening, thus patients are waiting excessively for care. If TriWest can’t reach you, they’ll send a letter and then cancel your authorization in 10 days after they send a letter,” Rodriguez said.

A VA spokesman did not respond to TheDCNF’s request for comment.

VA leaders told Congress they’re serious about making the program work. But the Phoenix VA hired Deloris Judd only weeks after she was fired by the Chicago VA for patient abuse and lying, and put her to work examining Choice Card vouchers, something she had no experience doing.

Yolanda Cobia, who works in another VA office processing Choice Card documents, said employees bring their kids to work and watch movies in the office, then bill for overtime.

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