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Texas whistleblower speaks to VA investigators on vet wait time claims

AUSTIN, Texas — A day after accusing U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs officials in Texas of an elaborate scheme to manipulate wait time data at medical facilities, a government whistleblower said he was contacted by VA investigators Wednesday about his allegations, which were first revealed by the American-Statesman.

Previous internal VA investigations have turned up evidence of a similar attempt to falsify appointment records at a VA clinic in Fort Collins, Colo.

The VA employee told the Statesman that he and other scheduling clerks in Austin, San Antonio and Waco were directed by supervisors to hide true wait times at clinics by inputting false records into the VA’s scheduling system. The employee, who didn’t wish to be identified until he spoke with investigators, is seeking federal protection from any potential retaliation.

In communications with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, which provides whistleblower protection to federal employees, the employee said he was directed to change appointment records as recently as April 22 at the North Central Federal Clinic in San Antonio. The clerk said he was told to change records indicating a 29-day wait for an appointment to make it appear that the wait time fell within the VA’s goal of 14 days.

The whistleblower, a disabled veteran who left the Army in 2011, worked at the Austin VA Outpatient Clinic from December 2012 to December 2013 and said he and other clerks were routinely instructed to falsely log requested appointments to make wait times appear as small as possible.

In 2012, a scheduling clerk in New Hampshire told a Senate subcommittee that the practice there was linked to higher bonuses for VA executives, which were based on performance goals that included wait times.

Last month, doctors at the Phoenix, Ariz., VA medical center detailed a secret wait list meant to obscure the hospital’s substantial backlog of patients. One former doctor claimed more than 40 patients died while awaiting appointments. The U.S. House Committee on Veterans Affairs announced Wednesday it is seeking to subpoena evidence related to destruction of documents in Phoenix that might be related to a secret wait list.

“It’s the same old, same old,” said Elridge Nelson, service officer for the Austin chapter of Disabled American Veterans. “The VA needs to step up and do what needs to be done for us vets.”

While Nelson said his personal wait times for appointments at the Austin clinic haven’t been excessive, other local veterans told of longer waits Wednesday.

Bastrop resident J.D. Wallace, who retired from the Marines in 2012, said he sought an appointment in Austin with his primary care doctor in early January and was given an appointment for April 15. “I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “Not for a simple follow-up.”

Texas officials continued to blast the VA over the allegations Wednesday with both U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst calling for VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign.

“It repulses me, as an American, a Texan, and as a proud former Air Force officer, to learn that allegations about the VA, similar to what were discovered last week in Phoenix, have surfaced in Austin and San Antonio,” Dewhurst said in a statement. “I hope there is speedy resolution to these claims, punishment for wrongdoers, and significant changes to procedures.”

On the floor of the U.S. Senate, Cornyn entered the American-Statesman story into the Congressional Record and repeated his call for an investigation into the incident. “Scandals like this confirm the VA lacks safeguards against official abuses and also lacks accountability,” he said.

Central Texas VA officials haven’t directly addressed the latest allegations, but told the Statesman this week that scheduling practices would be reviewed and “refresher training” provided to clerks.

The Texas whistleblower said that such training was provided Wednesday in San Antonio.
 

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