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Investigation: Southern Arizona VA manipulating veteran care wait times

Tucson VA Medical Center (Flickr Photo/Veterans Health)

PHOENIX — A report from the Inspector General said the Southern Arizona Veterans Administration Health Care System was manipulating wait-time data to make it appear veterans saw short waits for care.

The report, released earlier this week, said employees at the Southern Arizona VA would offer a veteran the next available appointment when he or she contacted the agency. If the veteran accepted, the employee would document the scheduled date as the veteran’s desired care date in the system.

However, the VA tracks wait times through the difference in the veteran’s desired care date and the scheduled date.

“Say I call in on Dec. 1 and they tell me that your appointment is going to be on Jan. 15. Math would tell us tell that’s a 45-day wait,” Phoenix VA whistleblower Brandon Coleman told Arizona’s Morning News on Friday.

“But not to the VA. The VA would say my preferred date is Jan. 15. So I, as a good veteran that wants the health care, shows up on Jan. 15. When I show up Jan. 15 for my appointment, it’s considered a zero- or one-day wait. That’s how they say the wait times are low.”

The report said employees were improperly trained on how to schedule appointments and ordered by management to “fix it” if the facility fell short of performance goals. Providers were expected to provide care to 92 percent of veterans within a week of a desired care date.

“The system is set to where supervisors have to lie to get bonuses,” Coleman said.

The report said, of the 5,802 routine care appointments made at the Southern Arizona VA between December 2013 and August 2014, 76 percent had matching preferred and scheduled care dates.

Four of the five physicians working at the VA at that time were given bonuses totaling $28,521 for keeping veteran wait times low. Several nurses also received relatively small bonuses.

Thirteen veterans who waited for care more than 30 days died while the schedule manipulating was taking place. However, the report said the deaths were not related to them waiting for care.

Scheduling data from October 2015 to March 2016 — after the training was corrected — showed 46 percent of appointments had matching preferred and scheduled care dates.

U.S. Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake said a separate investigation found employees failed to properly schedule approximately 400 orthopedic appointment requests and an additional 600 urology appointment requests.

The Inspector General reports also confirm widespread scheduling misconduct, including cancelling appointments if wait times exceeded 30 days.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.