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Whistleblower claims prompt call for Minneapolis VA investigation

Rep. Tim Walz

STARS AND STRIPES

By MARK BRUNSWICK | Star Tribune (Minneapolis) | Published: September 6, 2014

MINNEAPOLIS (MCT) — U.S. Rep. Tim Walz has asked for a federal probe into whether the Minneapolis Veterans Affairs hospital ordered employees to falsify records and maintain a secret waiting list for scheduling, then retaliated against two employees who blew the whistle on the practice.

The former Minneapolis VA employees worked in the Minneapolis hospital’s gastroenterology department and say veterans waiting for such procedures as cancer screening colonoscopies often were put on long waiting lists or had appointments unexpectedly canceled.

Walz said the employees’ allegations are “extremely troubling and run counter to what local leadership at the VA told me.”

Walz, DFL-Minn., who sits on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, has asked the Minneapolis VA about its scheduling practices after a national scandal about long wait times and secret scheduling lists. Walz has been assured repeatedly there have been no problems locally.

But the Minneapolis hospital and a community-based clinic in Rochester have been flagged for further review after a nationwide audit of VA facilities this summer.

Besides those reviews, more than two dozen complaints about treatment and scheduling have been filed about a privately run Hibbing VA clinic since the clinic was taken over by Cincinnati-based Sterling Medical Associates last year.

The Hibbing VA clinic became the target of criticism with reports about high staff turnover, poor communication and trouble getting needed medications such as insulin. One 65-year-old Navy veteran had to wait five months to get the open heart surgery he needed.

The complaints prompted Rep. Rick Nolan, DFL-Minn., of the Eighth District to hold a hearing in July in which he was peppered by concerns about how the clinic operated.

In Minneapolis, the former VA employees came forward to KARE-TV to say they were pressured to falsify patient appointment dates and medical records to hide delays.

In some cases, they told the station, employees were instructed to falsify medical records by writing that patients had declined follow-up treatments even though the veterans had never been contacted.

“If these allegations prove true, those responsible must and will be held accountable,” Walz said in a statement.

The two employees claim they were fired after trying to alert the Minneapolis VA’s top leadership of the problems.

Walz said he will also be following up with the VA’s Office of Special Counsel to determine if the two employees lost their jobs in retaliation for coming forward.

“No employee should feel pressured to falsify data or fear retaliation if they do the right thing and report wrongdoing to their superiors,” Walz said.

The Minneapolis VA responded with a statement Friday morning. “We welcome an investigation and I, too, have requested an outside review of all the allegations,” said Patrick Kelly, the director of the Minneapolis facility.

Earlier this summer, an internal audit by the VA found that staff at a VA outpatient clinic in Rochester “felt pressure to manipulate” appointment data to hide delays in medical care for veterans.

The Minneapolis VA oversees a network of 13 clinics in western Wisconsin and Minnesota, including the Rochester location.

©2014 Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
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