Key members of Congress want to know if VA has secret wait list for health care
By JOE DAVIDSON | The Washington Post | Published: June 5, 2019
WASHINGTON — Key members of Congress want the Trump administration to address charges of a "secret" Veterans Affairs wait list that has a higher number of patients seeking medical care than information publicly available.
Allegations about significantly different data regarding veterans awaiting treatment on internal and public records were made by Jereme P. Whiteman, VA's national director of clinic practice management, in a Washington Post Federal Insider column published online Monday.
The article reported on a letter he sent to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie last week that said, "In September last year I discovered a secret VA wait list. I disclosed this wait list within my VHA chain of command. Since that date I have been retaliated against by officials within my chain of command. Furthermore, the agency has taken steps to conceal this wait list from the public."
The monthly number of veterans awaiting care on the internal list is about three times greater than the numbers on the public list.
A VA spokesman said Whiteman's allegations are false. "VA's electronic wait list (EWL) has two components - one administrative and one clinical," said Curt Cashour, the department's press secretary.
The clinical number is public and shows the number of veterans waiting for medical care. "The administrative component of the EWL has nothing to do with waits for medical treatment," he added, "and tracks routine actions, such as facility and provider transfer requests."
Top Democrats on the House and Senate veterans' affairs committees are not satisfied with that response.
In a letter sent Tuesday to Wilkie, Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., chairman of the House committee, and Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, the ranking Democrat on the Senate panel, said Cashour's explanation "is, at best, confusing."
"We, therefore, ask VA to provide - by the end of this week - a more thorough explanation for the existence of two sets of reports on wait time for veterans' health care. In fulfilling this request, VA should provide the House and Senate Committees on Veterans' Affairs with the reports described by the article and the appropriate VA officials should make themselves available for a briefing to the Committees."
A statement from the office of Rep. Phil Roe of Tennessee, the top Republican on the House panel, said, "Dr. Roe has asked VA about these allegations and will continue looking into them."
Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., chairman of the House Oversight and Reform subcommittee on government operations, said the "allegations of a secret internal wait list for veterans - that exceeds the public wait list by three-fold - are deeply disturbing. . . . Congress must get to the bottom of these claims by verifying the accuracy of these internal VA documents and ensuring transparency and accountability for our nation's veterans and the American people."
Connolly praised whistleblowers and said they "must be protected" against reprisals by managers. In addition to reporting his charges about the dual wait lists with VA's Office of the Medical Inspector and the department's Office of Inspector General, Whiteman has filed retaliation complaints with the VA whistleblower protection office and the Office of Special Counsel, which protects whistleblowers across the government.
Inspector General Michael Missal said his office received Whiteman's information and is considering the next steps for his office.
In one example of retaliation, Whiteman said he led a team that implemented a text messaging system to remind patients of their appointments. It cut the number of missed sessions and saved the department millions of dollars. Although he was the team leader, he was the only member who did not get a performance award for the project.
Whiteman's allegations come five years after a national uproar over phony wait lists rocked the VA. That scandal pushed then-VA Secretary Eric Shinseki from office and led to a series of agency reforms. Robert McDonald, who followed Shinseki in office, apologized to veterans in September 2014 congressional testimony and promised to rebuild trust.
He said the VA increased primary care staffing, developed an automated system for tracking new patients and contacted 266,000 veterans "to get them off wait lists and into clinics."
On Tuesday, Cashour said the VA now is "seeing more patients than ever before, more quickly than before." According to Cashour:
- VA completed more than 58 million internal appointments in fiscal 2018, 623,000 more than the previous year.
- All VA health care facilities now provide same-day services in primary and mental health.
- VA is posting online wait times for every one of its medical centers across the country, and they are updated weekly.
- Regularly updated access data are available online for all VA medical centers and community-based outpatient clinics.
"Veterans are more satisfied with wait times," Cashour said, "than they have been previously."