Auditors visit Chicago-area VA amid reports of secret waiting lists
By Mitch Smith | Chicago Tribune | Published: May 15, 2014
CHICAGO, Ill. — Federal auditors visited the Edward Hines Jr. Veterans Affairs Hospital near Maywood on Wednesday amid allegations by a social worker that patients at Hines were kept on "secret waiting lists" so executives could collect bonuses linked to meeting standards for speedy treatment.
Germaine Clarno, president of the American Federation of Government Employees VA Local 781, first told CBS News in a report that aired Tuesday that "employees are coming to me from all over the hospital" with stories about secret waiting lists.
"I've seen these lists," Clarno told the Tribune in an interview Wednesday. "It just became regular, normal business."
In a statement given to the tribune Wednesday, Hines Director Joan Ricard said she had "received no evidence or specific facts about data manipulation" at the hospital.
Clarno's account followed news reports that patients at a VA hospital in Phoenix were denied treatment while staff kept them on secret waiting lists for months. At some point, those reports said, veterans were transferred to official waiting lists where their purported wait times aligned with department goals.
The director of the Arizona facility, a former Hines executive, has since been placed on leave. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki is set to answer questions about the issue in testimony before Congress on Thursday.
Hines, a 471-bed facility in an unincorporated area of western Cook County, served more than 54,000 veterans in a recent year, according to its website.
Hospital spokeswoman Charity Hardison said Wednesday's visit by VA auditors is part of a nationwide review of veterans' access to care that was ordered by Shinseki.
Ricard said in her statement that she immediately investigated last week when Clarno raised concerns that a spreadsheet mentioned in an internal email was evidence of a separate waiting list for mental health treatment.
Ricard said she found that the spreadsheet in question was "a performance improvement tool" and not a separate wait list.
Clarno declined to provide documents backing her claims to the Tribune, saying that such disclosures could lead to retaliation against hospital workers. Clarno has previously criticized VA administration and the treatment of employees at Hines.
Central to the accusations of secret lists is that VA executives receive bonuses based in part on how quickly patients are seen. But J. David Cox Sr., the national president of Clarno's union, said making secret lists leads to poorer treatment for veterans and cloaks broader problems about staffing levels.
"If you can't get all your work done," Cox said, "it's important to say, 'These are the obstacles,' not just create fake waiting lists. That's just wrong. Totally wrong."
In a statement, U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk said he was troubled by the accusations of secret lists at Hines and called for the Department of Veterans Affairs to investigate the hospital.
"I am concerned about credible reports of secret wait lists at Hines VA, similar to the lists used in Phoenix," said Kirk, himself a veteran. "The Inspector General should immediately broaden its investigation to include Hines VA and to deliver a swift and immediate report."
Reuters contributed to this report.