VA Official: There Are No Secret Waiting Lists

While admitting problems, a Veterans Affairs official tells a House committee that Phoenix officials were just trying to improve access to care.

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 28: (L-R) Veterans Health Administration Assistant Deputy Under Secretary for Health for Clinical Operations Thomas Lynch; Assistant Veterans Affairs Secretary for Congressional and Legislative Affairs Joan Mooney and Veterans Affairs Office of Congressional and Legislative Affairs Officer Michael Huff testify before the House Veterans' Affairs Committee in the Cannon House Office Building on Capitol Hill May 28, 2014 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Sarah Mimms
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Sarah Mimms
May 28, 2014, 9:14 p.m.

Dur­ing a testy and at times emo­tion­al four-hour hear­ing late Wed­nes­day night, an of­fi­cial with the Vet­er­ans Af­fairs De­part­ment told the House Vet­er­ans’ Af­fairs Com­mit­tee that re­ports of secret wait­ing lists at the Phoenix Health Care Sys­tem are false.

“I was not able to identi­fy any lists that I thought were secret,” the VA’s As­sist­ant Deputy Un­der­sec­ret­ary for Health for Clin­ic­al Op­er­a­tions, Dr. Thomas Lynch, told mem­bers Wed­nes­day.

Lynch went on to ex­plain that the lists were ac­tu­ally pro­duced auto­mat­ic­ally by the VA’s data sys­tem when an ap­point­ment was can­celed so that it could be res­ched­uled. Once a new ap­point­ment was made, the lists were des­troyed, Lynch said, be­cause they con­tained “pa­tient-identi­fy­ing in­form­a­tion,” in­clud­ing So­cial Se­cur­ity num­bers. Sev­er­al mem­bers asked Lynch for the names of those re­spons­ible for des­troy­ing the doc­u­ments, but he said he did not know.

In all of those cases, Lynch told re­port­ers after the hear­ing, the ap­point­ments were can­celed and res­ched­uled due to either cler­ic­al is­sues or the staff’s de­term­in­a­tion that they could see the vet­er­an on an earli­er date.

A pre­lim­in­ary re­port is­sued by the VA’s in­spect­or gen­er­al earli­er on Wed­nes­day found evid­ence of in­ap­pro­pri­ate schedul­ing tac­tics at the Phoenix VA that res­ul­ted in long delays and placed some of the blame on the fact that the de­part­ment ties low wait times to staffers’ bo­nuses. Sev­er­al me­dia out­lets have re­por­ted that those long lines for ser­vice res­ul­ted in at least 40 deaths, al­though the IG has not yet con­firmed those fig­ures.

Lynch agreed that the as­so­ci­ation between low wait times and bo­nus checks had led to prob­lems at fa­cil­it­ies across the coun­try, but he ad­ded that in­ten­tions at the Phoenix fa­cil­ity were good. “I think that the man­age­ment in Phoenix were mak­ing an hon­est ef­fort to try to im­prove vet­er­ans’ ac­cess. I think they were try­ing to im­prove the timeli­ness in which care was be­ing provided,” he said.

Lynch test­i­fied that he has been to the Phoenix fa­cil­ity three times in the past two months, where he met with of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing the dir­ect­or and sev­er­al sched­ulers. But he ad­ded that he did not meet with any of the whistle-blowers in the case, a state­ment that caused an up­roar among mem­bers on both sides of the aisle on the House com­mit­tee.

Lynch also said that he brought his wife with him on the first trip so that the two could cel­eb­rate East­er week­end to­geth­er, which Rep. Dina Tit­us, D-Nev., called in­ap­pro­pri­ate. “I would just ask you, Doc­tor, to tell me how you could have pos­sibly thought it was ap­pro­pri­ate to turn such a crit­ic­al, ser­i­ous mis­sion in­to a per­son­al hol­i­day?” she asked.

House Vet­er­ans Af­fairs’ Com­mit­tee Chair­man Jeff Miller, R-Cal­if., said after the hear­ing that he isn’t buy­ing Lynch’s ar­gu­ment. “There are secret lists. There are mul­tiple lists at some fa­cil­it­ies that we have found.”¦ So this whole idea that this is a mis­un­der­stand­ing is a red her­ring. To try to claim that what they were do­ing was try­ing to provide quick­er health care for vet­er­ans, let the facts speak for them­selves. Vet­er­ans were not get­ting health care in a timely fash­ion,” Miller said.

Lynch did say that he agrees with the in­spect­or gen­er­al’s ini­tial re­port, which was re­leased earli­er Wed­nes­day and showed that the Phoenix Health Care Sys­tem grossly overre­por­ted how quickly vet­er­ans were re­ceiv­ing care. That in­vest­ig­a­tion found that, on av­er­age, a sub­sample of vet­er­ans waited 115 days for an ini­tial ap­point­ment, while the Phoenix de­part­ment re­por­ted that the av­er­age was 24 days. The VA re­com­mends to its health care fa­cil­it­ies that vet­er­ans wait no more than 14 days for an ap­point­ment.

The same re­port showed that 1,700 vet­er­ans at the Phoenix fa­cil­ity were still on a wait­ing list. Lynch told the com­mit­tee Wed­nes­day that each of those vet­er­ans would re­ceive a call by Fri­day to sched­ule an ap­point­ment, or would be re­ferred to an out­side med­ic­al fa­cil­ity (where care would be paid for by the de­part­ment) if their loc­al VA sys­tem lacked room to see them. The de­part­ment is cur­rently con­duct­ing an in­vent­ory of wait lists na­tion­wide and will make sim­il­ar out­reach ef­forts in the next few weeks, he ad­ded.

The hear­ing capped off a dif­fi­cult day for re­la­tions between the Vet­er­ans Af­fairs De­part­ment and Cap­it­ol Hill, as a wa­ter­fall of mem­bers called for Sec­ret­ary Eric Shin­seki’s resig­na­tion, in­clud­ing a grow­ing num­ber of Demo­crats.

And mem­bers of the House Vet­er­ans’ Af­fairs Com­mit­tee were no friend­li­er. Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans on the com­mit­tee ex­pressed in­creas­ing frus­tra­tion that their sub­poena for doc­u­ments re­lated to the wait-list is­sues has not been ful­filled, adding a level of strain to the pro­ceed­ings. Rep. Mike Coff­man, R-Colo., even went so far as to add the names of all three de­part­ment of­fi­cials who test­i­fied Wed­nes­day to the list of those who should step down from their jobs.

Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., got par­tic­u­larly col­or­ful, telling Lynch: “What I don’t un­der­stand is, as a vet­er­an, as a doc­tor, as a prac­ti­tion­er, how you can stand in a mir­ror and look at your­self in a mir­ror and shave in the morn­ing and then not throw up know­ing that you’ve got people out there “¦ [who] can’t get in.”

The of­fi­cials vowed Wed­nes­day to make an audit avail­able to mem­bers of Con­gress con­cern­ing fa­cil­it­ies loc­ated in their home dis­tricts in the com­ing weeks. Mean­while, the Of­fice of the In­spect­or Gen­er­al is ex­pec­ted to is­sue a full re­port on is­sues at the Vet­er­ans Af­fairs De­part­ment some­time in June.

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