Agency faults review of wait times at Central Texas VA hospitals

Olin E. Teague Veterans' Medical Center. (VA photo/file)
Olin E. Teague Veterans' Medical Center. (VA photo/file)(KWTX)
Published: Apr. 29, 2016 at 4:10 PM CDT
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The U.S. Office of the Special Counsel is faulting reviews of wait times at VA hospitals in Temple, Austin and San Antonio.

The independent agency, which is charged with protecting federal employees from prohibited personnel practices including reprisal for whistleblowing, says the investigation of wait times at Central Texas VA hospitals by the VA’s Office of Inspector General was "deficient and unreasonable,” and "failed to appropriately address" whistleblower allegations.

Two administrative report summaries released on March 9 say allegations about wait times for services at the Olin E. Teague Veterans’ Medical Center in Temple were unsubstantiated.

The reports from the VA Office of Inspector General found no evidence of intentional wrongdoing at the Central Texas Veterans Health Care System.

But the Office of the Special Counsel, while not challenging the findings, took issue with the investigation of the allegations from two whistleblowers involving scheduling manipulation at the Temple VA and at other facilities across the Central Texas Veterans Healthcare System.

The inspector general’s investigation, the agency said, did not address one whistleblower’s allegation “that the VA categorized hundreds of requests for fee-basis consults for non-VA care as ‘scheduled’ or ‘complete,’ even though the VA did not actually complete them.”

In a second instance, in which an anonymous whistleblower at the Temple VA alleged that a senior staff member canceled and rescheduled radiology consultations in order to shorten patient wait times, the inspector general’s investigation “failed to fully address all of the allegations that OSC referred and also failed to reconcile seemingly contradictory information,” the agency said.

“These employees raised important concerns about access to care issues within their hospitals and I applaud their efforts to improve care for veterans,” said Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner.

“While these investigations failed to fully address the serious disclosures concerning the health and safety of our veterans, I am encouraged by the VA’s commitment to improve its investigative processes moving forward.”

In another case, Phillip Turner, a VA medical support assistant, alleged that staff at VA facilities in San Antonio and Austin, were directed to “zero out” patient wait times for appointments.

“The VA substantiated that systemic improper scheduling was occurring at these locations, but did not address whether improper scheduling may have endangered public health and safety.”

The Central Texas Veterans Health Care System later released a statement in which it reiterated that the OIG review found no intentional wrongdoing.

“We have repeatedly said that where misconduct has been found, whether independently by the OIG or internally by VA, we will take appropriate action. No misconduct was found in these cases. In cases where VA has completed follow-up work on OIG-related wait time cases, the Department has provided this information to local stakeholders,” the statement said.

“In the overwhelming majority of instances, the OIG found no intentional wrongdoing; nonetheless these reports demonstrated the need for standardized training on scheduling across VHA. As part of ‘MyVA’ transformation, VA has worked to improve and modernize scheduling processes in Vista, and leverage industry to explore other potential commercial solutions. We have also strengthened leader and management training through a focused “Leaders Developing Leaders” program, and adopted “Lean” as the centerpiece methodology for our process improvement effort. We have also ensured that all employees involved in scheduling are retrained, while improving our processes as we update scheduling software.”