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VA clears doctor of wrongdoing in Texas

SAN ANTONIO — The VA said Wednesday it could not substantiate a doctor's claim that a fellow physician manipulated waiting lists at a veterans' hospital in Temple, and that it had found no evidence of wrongdoing at clinics in San Antonio and Austin.

A retired Austin doctor, Dr. Joseph Spann, told Veterans Affairs investigators in a letter that Dr. Gordon Vincent, chief of radiology at Olin E. Teague Veterans Medical Center in Temple, had altered the waiting lists to mask problems there.

But Jessica Jacobsen, a Dallas-based VA spokeswoman, said the agency found no proof of Spann's claim or allegations he made that he saw similar activities at a VA clinic in Austin.

“Once we heard about these allegations, we looked into them and there was no request of physicians by the chief of imaging service to change the requested date,” Jacobsen said.

The VA has launched a two-track investigation, one led by its Inspector General's office and the other ordered by VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.

Allegations of waiting-list manipulations have been made at VA facilities in San Antonio, Temple, and Austin, among others nationwide.

Investigators have been to all three facilities, but an IG's spokeswoman in Washington, Catherine Gromek, wouldn't disclose details of the probe.

In the most explosive allegation, a doctor at the Phoenix VA Health Care System said 40 patients had died due to waiting-list delays.

The VA's acting inspector general, Robert Griffin, last week said a review of 17 cases there found no evidence of that.

The VA said Wednesday it knew of no deaths due to delays in care at Texas' nine VA medical centers and 36 clinics.

However, an Austin doctor last week said one of his patients, Army combat medic Anson Dale Richardson, died while awaiting VA treatment for cancer.

Jacobsen, the VA spokeswoman in Dallas, said the case was being reviewed.

She also said a different review found Vincent, the Temple doctor, had not asked physicians to change the requested dates for ultrasounds, MRIs and CT scans.

Dates were changed if diagnostic tests were available earlier than requested or if imaging services determined one was needed before the requested date, she said.

Spann couldn't be reached and Vincent did not respond to a request made though the VA for comment.

Jacobsen also pointed to improvements made at the Teague Center's Imaging Service since Vincent came on board in 2007.

The number of radiologists rose from four in March 2007 to 10 this month, with eight in Temple and two in Austin. Nine schedulers are on duty compared with three in 2007, Six are in Temple, two in Austin and one is in Waco.

There also are more CT scanners, MRI scanners, and digital mammography and ultrasound devices. Hours have been extended in Temple and Austin, and additional staffers have been approved as well.

The San Antonio whistleblower, scheduling clerk Brian Turner, has alleged that waiting lists at clinics here and in Austin had been doctored to hide backlog problems.

He said Wednesday that he stood by his accusations, and doubted audit teams recently dispatched by Shinseki had dug deeply enough to find the truth.

Turner also said IG investigators who recently questioned him met Wednesday with supervisors at the North Central Federal Clinic on Henderson Pass. He said IG investigators had yet to meet with clerks at the facility, where he works.

Audit teams last week visited VA facilities in Dallas, Fort Worth, Waco, Temple, Austin, San Antonio, Harlingen, McAllen and Bonham. Jacobsen said regional “leadership is not aware of any concerns brought up during these audits.”

The teams consist of workers from VA offices from other regions. Smaller clinics under the regional office will be audited by June 6, with clerks selected randomly.

Investigators with the teams will learn the workers' understanding of the VA's scheduling processes, Jacobsen said, and supervisors won't be present. Union representatives will be allowed if workers want them.

While she couldn't say which Texas facilities the IG's team had visited, Jacobsen said “we at VA welcome them and the scrutiny so the truth can come out.”

sigc@express-news.net

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