WASHINGTON – Veterans hospitals in upstate New York – including the Buffalo VA Medical Center – were cleared of wrongdoing in a Veterans Affairs Department audit released Monday that found excessive wait times and questionable appointment scheduling at some other VA facilities.
Auditors visited the 216 largest VA facilities nationwide in May following reports that patients died while waiting for appointments at a veterans hospital in Phoenix, which was also found to be hiding its scheduling difficulties.
Of the 216 facilities visited, 81, or 37 percent, were found to require further review – meaning auditors feel that they need to probe more deeply into possible problems there.
The auditors found no need to do a further review of the Buffalo VA Medical Center or any other such facility in upstate New York, although it called for an additional study of actions at a hospital in the Hudson Valley.
Nationwide, the audit discovered widespread problems. More that 57,000 veterans nationwide have been waiting for medical appointments for more than three months, and an additional 64,000 veterans who enrolled for treatment from the VA have never been seen by a doctor.
House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, termed those findings “a national disgrace.”
Paul J. Rieckhoff III, founder and CEO of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said: “This audit is absolutely infuriating, and underscores the depth of this scandal.”
The local VA facilities, however, largely performed better than the nationwide average in terms of scheduling appointments promptly.
The VA Western New York Healthcare System, which includes hospitals in Buffalo and Batavia, scheduled 97 percent of its patient appointments within 30 days of when they were requested. At VA hospitals nationwide, 96 percent of appointments were scheduled within 30 days.
“On behalf of staff and veterans at VA Western New York Healthcare System, we were pleased to see the results of the Access Audit and Wait Times Report,” said Brian G. Stiller, medical center director. “Veterans should receive access to VA care when they want it. We continuously strive to improve the access to quality health care in a timely manner.”
New primary care patients at the Buffalo and Batavia facilities had to wait an average of 28 days for their appointments, which is about half as long as patients in Phoenix had to wait and far short of the 145-day wait in Honolulu, the nation’s longest. Those wait times were shorter in Buffalo and Batavia than they were in any other VA hospital in upstate New York.
Waits were far longer – an average of 42 days – for new patients in Western New York who need to see a specialist. But that’s far short of the wait in a VA hospital in Harlingen, Texas, which had the nation’s longest wait for new patients seeing a specialist: 145 days.
In Western New York, “if services are not available due to demand or scarce specialty providers, veterans are referred to a community provider,” Stiller said.
In addition, the local VA facilities prioritize patients’ needs and try to move them up in the pecking order if they need treatment more quickly, said Evangeline E. Conley, public affairs officer for the VA Western New York Healthcare System.
New mental health patients in the region, meanwhile, had to wait 35 days for their first appointment – far short of the 104-day wait in Durham, N.C., which was the nation’s longest.
Local lawmakers emphasized that the relatively positive local data should not be allowed to mask the scope of the VA’s nationwide problems. “While this report clears our worst fears for Buffalo and upstate New York, it is disturbing that almost four out of 10 facilities examined nationwide require a deeper dive to uncover the depth of the problem,” said Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The audit was based not only on wait times at various VA facilities, but also on a survey of VA employees that found that 13 percent of the appointment schedulers interviewed said they had been told by “supervisors or others” to falsify records about how long veterans were waiting for appointments. Auditors will do further work at VA facilities where the evidence indicates that might have happened.
The department had long set a goal of seeing patients within 14 days of their first call, and had even tied its employees’ job performance reviews to that goal. But the audit seemed to indicate that that 14-day goal had encouraged VA workers to falsify records.
For that reason, the VA said it will no longer tie performance reviews to that 14-day goal.
The VA Office of Inspector General is conducting a criminal investigation into the falsification of those scheduling records, but leading senators said Monday that the inspector general needs help.
“An effective and prompt criminal investigation must inevitably involve the resources of the Department of Justice, including the FBI,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said in a letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.
The problems in Phoenix and elsewhere recently forced the resignation of VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki. His temporary successor, acting VA Secretary Sloan D. Gibson IV, said the audit was just another step in the VA’s move to reform.
“The only way to rid the department of this widespread dishonesty and duplicity is to pull it out by the roots,” said House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla. “That’s why it’s incumbent upon the Senate to do what the House of Representatives has already done: vote to give the VA secretary the authority he needs to immediately fire failing VA executives, including all supervisors who ordered their subordinates to cook the books.”
Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, stressed that the audit does not paint an entirely rosy picture of VA operations in Western New York.
Of the local doctor’s appointments the VA studied, nearly 45,000 were scheduled within 30 days of the first call – but nearly 1,500 were not.
“There’s still 1,500 people waiting,” Higgins said. “That’s 1,500 too many.”