WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs plans to scour patient appointments at medical facilities including the center in North Las Vegas following allegations that waiting lists were manipulated at VA hospitals and clinics in Arizona, Texas and Colorado.
Veterans Secretary Eric Shinseki on Thursday ordered a nationwide “access review” that will take place over the next several weeks. “As part of the review … a national face-to-face-audit will be conducted at all clinics for every VA medical center,” according to notification sent to members of Congress.
The impending audit was disclosed as the House Committee on Veterans Affairs voted unanimously to subpoena Shinseki for records from the Carl T. Hayden VA Medical Facility in Phoenix. The committee is seeking emails and other material that critics say discuss the destruction of a secret list of veterans awaiting care at the Arizona facility.
At least two doctors have come forward alleging that employees in Phoenix were inaccurately reporting patient wait times to mask long delays in granting appointments, and that as many as 40 veterans might have died due to delayed care.
VA medical inspectors found patient wait times were similarly misreported at a VA outpatient clinic in Fort Collins, Co. Additionally, a scheduling clerk has accused VA officials in San Antonio and Austin of manipulating appointment data to hide long wait times to see VA doctors in those cities
Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., a member of the House committee, voted for the subpoena. She also said she is seeking records from the VA Medical Center in North Las Vegas “to be sure they did not do what Phoenix did” using a similar electronic scheduling system.
“From what I know at this point there is no evidence” of similar problems at the Southern Nevada facility, which opened in August 2012, she said. “We don’t think there is. We have not been led to believe there is but we want to be sure.”
Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., also said he has not been made aware of allegations involving the Southern Nevada complex.
“I am not hearing the types of stories we are hearing out of Phoenix and Texas,” said Heller, who sits on the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs. Shinseki is scheduled to appear at a Senate hearing May 15 on VA health care.
In response to a query from the Las Vegas Review-Journal, VA spokesman Richard Beam said the Southern Nevada medical facilities that include the North Las Vegas medical center and associated clinics “have not had any issues or allegations of ‘secret’ lists or any manipulation of our wait times whatsoever.
“We have been pretty straight forward with you all in the press, with our VSOs (Veterans Service Organizations) as well as our congressional offices as to the wait times our veterans have faced for certain care,” Beam said.
“Our policy for waitlists is clear. EVERYTHING MUST BE RECORDED using our electronic wait lists,” Beam said in an email, capitalizing letters for emphasis. “We actually use that wait list to help plan resources and look for trends in need. It’s not a tool we use to punish or beat up on our departments.”
A report last week by the VA Inspector General said the North Las Vegas hospital had difficulties keeping up with patient load in its emergency room, following reports that Sandi Niccum, a 78-year-old blind Navy veteran crying with stomach pain waited almost five hours before seeing a doctor on the evening of Oct. 22, 2013.
A KTNV-TV Channel 13 report last month also disclosed wait times averaging six months for veterans to schedule cataract surgery.
Also, patients seeking knee replacements or hip replacements can wait 4 to 6 months, depending on the urgency for such an operation, hospital administrator Isabell Duff told the television station. There are also waiting lists for dermatology, podiatry and some ear, nose and throat procedures.
“Anytime we have a delay it’s not something that we want,” Duff told the station.
Review-Journal reporter Keith Rogers contributed to this report. Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at STetreault@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760. Find him on Twitter: @STetreaultDC.