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Report: Choice Program creating longer secondary wait list at Phoenix VA

LISTEN: The VA's Choice Card option, and how it's impacted veterans seeking care.

PHOENIX — A program that allows veterans to seek care from other doctors outside of the encumbered Phoenix VA is reportedly creating a secondary wait list with longer wait times.

The Veterans Choice Program was approved in 2014 and unveiled earlier this year. It was intended to reduce long waits at Veterans Administration hospitals around the country by allowing veterans to seek care from outside doctors with the promise that Uncle Sam would foot the bill.

But a report from the Daily Caller claims the program is doing little more than creating a secondary wait list that stretches longer than the list for care at the VA itself.

“It seems like there’s nothing the VA can’t manage to screw up,” the report’s author, Luke Rosiak, told Arizona’s Morning News on Friday.

Rosiak said the waiting list for care at the Phoenix facility is about one month, while the list for outside care stretches about three times that.

“To escape a one-month waiting list, you have to wait three months, which obviously makes very little sense,” he said, adding that he estimates about 50,000 veterans are still waiting more than three months for care.

In a statement sent later Friday, the VA denied Rosiak’s claims.

“The Choice Program does not need nor use additional wait lists,” the statement said. “When a veteran cannot get an appointment within 30 days, they are referred immediately to TriWest Health Care Alliance or at least within 48 hours.”

Rosiak said the only way veterans can request to get outside care is when the VA deems its own waiting list is too long. After a veteran asks to see a private doctor, he or she is given approval by the facility but is left in limbo waiting on the administration to work out its own scheduling.

“The VA is the bottleneck here,” he said.

The VA said veterans are free to make an appointment as needed and that it will be within 20 days of the veteran’s call. The administration said the entire process, from request to appointment, takes less than 30 days.

However, the VA said veterans who choose to wait and see a specific provider — be it with the VA or outside of the administration — could wait longer.

In a Thursday release, the VA also said it is spending tens of millions of dollars to increase its care system in Phoenix. It claims it has upped its clinical work by 38 percent by adding tens of thousands of square feet of space, partnering with other facilities to share work and rolling out a new culture to include new training, hires and procedures.

“The sustained and continued improvement of the Phoenix VA Health Care System is a department priority,” VA Deputy Director Sloan Gibson said.

But the wait times are only part of the problem. According to Rosiak, the VA has been slow to pay or have not paid doctors for veteran care, leading some to refuse VA-referred patients.

“They (the VA) seem to be sabotaging the choice card program on both ends,” he said. “The first is, as we talked about, they’re not making the appointments on time and the second is they’re not paying those doctors on time, so a lot of doctors have refused to see veterans anymore because they’ve been burned in the past.”

Rosiak said some veterans’ health bills have gone into collections awaiting VA payment, which has affected their credit scores.

The VA did not address the doctor pay issue in any statement sent to KTAR News.

He also said the failings of the Choice Program show the administration is more worried about keeping people employed rather than veteran care.

“Unfortunately, I think this is a story of the VA basically functioning as a job-creation program probably more than as an entity designed to care for veterans,” he said. “They’re concerned that, if veterans leave the hospital, there will less justification for their own jobs.”

Brad Coleman, a whistleblower, said the woman who runs Phoenix’s portion of the Choice Program has a checkered past within the veteran care system.

“This lady applied in Phoenix, of all places — the worst example of VA health care in the nation — and she was accepted here,” he said of Deloris Judd.

The Daily Caller reported Judd was terminated from the Chicago VA for abusing several patients and then lying twice during an arbitration hearing. It also claimed she brushed off an older veteran who was asking for paperwork.

Coleman told Arizona’s Morning News on Thursday that the VA’s hiring guidelines, instead of seeking to permanently remove fired employees from its job candidate pool, actually encourages the rehiring of former employees.

“There’s this federal guideline that allows for a former employee, even if they’re fired with cause, to get preferential treatment to get hired over a veteran or civilian off the street,” he said.

In a different Thursday statement, the Phoenix VA said it is in the process of changing its culture and disagreed with the rehiring of Judd.

“The referenced hiring process regarding this employee that took place last summer, although conducted in an entirely legal manner, was not as thorough as we would have liked,” the statement read. “The VA is working hard to hold employees accountable while providing appropriate due process, and enforce better standards of acceptable performance.”

The agency said both federal rules and the Privacy Act limited any further discussion about Judd.

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