Whistleblower's claim starts probe of Texas VA clinics

The North Central Federal Clinic in San Antonio.


By SIG CHRISTENSON | Houston Chronicle | Published: May 9, 2014

SAN ANTONIO — A day after Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki ordered audits of VA clinics, the agency said it was investigating a worker's claim that he had manipulated waiting list data at clinics in San Antonio and Austin.

The agency Friday identified the employee as scheduling clerk Philip Brian Turner. He told CNN on Wednesday that he had worked to make it appear as if wait times were shorter than they were at both clinics.

But Marie Weldon, director of the South Texas Veterans Health Care System based here, told the San Antonio Express-News that the worker had recanted his claim that he had altered medical records at the clinic here in a bid to hide long wait times.

She said his story changed after the clerk talked with an investigator, but did not know if he had also backed off from his claim concerning the clinic in Austin.

“As soon as he brought that to our attention, we sat down with the employee and did a fact find where we interviewed him as well as some of the other staff and we could not substantiate his allegations. In fact, he ended up retracting his comments about South Texas,” Weldon said.

“It was clear to us as well that he was somewhat confused about the process himself of scheduling patients and he was given refresher training as well,” she added.

A VA regional spokesman, Ozzie Garza, said Friday that Turner was still employed at the North Central Federal Clinic on Henderson Pass on the North Side. Garza said Turner was the only VA employee he was aware of who had alleged there was misconduct at the local clinic and the Austin VA Outpatient Clinic.

Claims of VA workers manipulating information to obscure the true nature of waits at its facilities sparked a nationwide scandal after CNN reported dozens of deaths at a facility in Phoenix.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki on Thursday ordered “face-to-face” audits at all VA hospitals and clinics. Garza, the Texas VA spokesman, said such audits occur when investigators physically visit the site. Critics have called on Shinseki to resign, including the American Legion and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

The VA told the Express-News this week that no deaths due to delays in care have occurred at Texas' nine VA medical centers and 36 clinics. Jessica Jacobsen, in a response to questions submitted by the paper last weekend, said Tuesday that “there are no investigations on that subject in Texas or leaders removed from their posts.”

However, agents from the VA's inspector general's office were in San Antonio on Thursday as part of a routine, previously scheduled visit. One IG's office inspector contacted by the paper declined comment, but Weldon said the visit is part of a review done every three years. She said it was not ordered because of the waiting-list allegations.

The VA also noted that it had cut the number of backlogged claims in Texas and the nation in half. Cases older than 125 days are considered part of the VA's backlog.

The agency said its nationwide compensation and pension case backlog dropped from 611,073 in late March 2013 to 308,000 only four days ago, but those figures also were down substantially for two VA regional offices in Texas.

The regional offices handle claims for different parts of the state. In Houston, the office has reduced its compensation and pension backlog, which now stands at 13,395, by 53 percent, since January 2013, Jacobsen said.

The typical claim handled by the Houston office was 150 days, while the VA's Waco regional office took slightly longer - 156 days. The VA said the Waco regional office had cut its backlog by 62 percent, to 15,511 claims, since August 2012.

South Texas Veterans Health Care System officials said just 43 of 77,000 patients in its San Antonio catchment area had not been seen by medical specialists within 90 days. The South Texas system spans a 60-county area from San Antonio and Kerrville to Victoria.

While the VA said it has improved the numbers, one group, Concerned Veterans for America, recently complained that backlogged claims hadn't dropped that much and argued that a type of rating disguised the true figures.

It said provisional ratings given by the agency artificially lowered the true backlog. “Provisional rating leads to hastened, inaccurate and incomplete work, and shifts the work load to the veterans, which generates more appeals,” said Darin Selnick, the group's top VA adviser.

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, expressed concern about the allegations Friday morning and said a veterans committee she heads will look into them.

“Falsifying records and harming our nation's heroes is unacceptable,” said Van de Putte, who heads the Senate Veteran Affairs and Military Installations Committee and is the Democratic Party's candidate for lieutenant governor. “These allegations, if true, further erode veterans' confidence in a system that should be there to support them.”

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