Just when you think the scandals at the VA couldn’t possibly get worse, the scandals at the VA get worse. CNN reports that the Department of Veterans Affairs has not fixed the problems that caused the wait time scandal last year. But worse than that, the VA is punishing VA employees who report wrongdoing to the VA Inspector General or to their Representatives in Congress.
According to the first report from CNN, wait times for appointments at Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals and clinics has not improved since the wait-time scandal made front page headlines last year and forced then VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign in disgrace. Even in Phoenix, where at least 40 U.S. veterans died waiting while for appointments at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care system, the appointment system still hasn’t been fixed.
In 2014 many of those veterans had been placed on a secret waiting list, part of an elaborate scheme designed by Veterans Affairs managers in Phoenix in an attempt to hide the fact that 1,400 to 1,600 sick veterans had been forced to wait months to see a doctor. “The reality is veterans are waiting months — three, six months at a time, sometimes more — for care at the Phoenix VA,” said one source in Phoenix who agreed to speak to CNN anonymously because of fears of retaliation.
VA records obtained by CNN in August showed that more than 8,000 requests for care by veterans at the Phoenix VA medical center resulted in wait times longer than 90 days. Also,, a report released earlier this month by the VA Office of the Inspector General (VA-OIG) showed that delayed treatment in the Phoenix VA’s urology department significantly affected the care of patients who became later became extremely ill or died.
One person who works at the Phoenix VA medical center, told CNN that, “The reality is veterans are waiting months — three, six months at a time, sometimes more — for care at the Phoenix VA.”. That VA employee asked to remain anonymous because of fears of retaliation. According to the CNN report, the management of the Phoenix VA medical center hasn’t fixed the problem; they have just implemented a different way of covering it up.
But the problem isn’t limited to the Phoenix VA medical center. The Los Angeles VA medical center -is the largest VA hospital in the country. In August, the VA publicly released date stating that the average wait time was less than four days for completed mental health appointments at the Los Angeles VA medical center. However, according to internal documents obtained by CNN, the average wait time for new patients seeking mental health care at the Los Angeles VA medical center in August was actually 43 days.
A VA employee in Los Angeles, who also preferred to stay anonymous because of the threat of retaliation, told CNN how the VA was trying to hide the problem. “They’ve started to measure the numbers differently more than they have actually improved the patients actual wait time in many cases”.
The VA confirmed to CNN that they have made a change in wait-time calculations. Wait times used to be calculated by tracking the time that elapsed between the day the appointment was created until the day the appointment was actually completed. Under the new system, the VA measures the wait time by calculating how much time has elapsed between the date that a patient prefers to be seen and the date the appointment is actually completed.
That change is what caused the imaginary 39 day improvement in wait times at the Los Angeles VA medical center. The VA hasn’t fixed the wait time problem; they have just implemented a different way of covering it up, and the VA is punishing employees who report wrongdoing.
On Monday, during a hearing before a subcommittee of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, VA employees told the members of Congress that a culture of retaliation continues to prevent accountability at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Dr. Christian Head, who works at the Los Angeles VA medical center, said he has endured ongoing abuse after testifying before Congress and submitting complaints to the VA-OIG about issues such hiding wait times by deleting batches of patient appointments.
“It’s shameful,” Head said as he described a situation where supervisors isolate employees and attack their professional competence in order to discredit the allegations the employees have made about shoddy treatment and long wait times..
“Moving me to a storage bin makes me feel bad, but they are sending a message. They are trying to intimidate. They are trying to suppress [whistleblowers’] willingness to try to make a better life for these veterans.”
Despite an influx of billions of extra dollars, and despite numerous reforms announced by the VA intended to improve medical care for veterans, nothing has really changed. In fact they may have gotten worse. VA facilities across the country continue to struggle with appointment wait times that stretch into months instead of days. But now the VA employees who report wrongdoing are being punished for their efforts to improve health care at the VA.