North Las Vegas VA hospital flagged for investigation

WASHINGTON – Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev, on Monday charged mismanagement at the veterans medical center in North Las Vegas after a VA official confirmed a preliminary audit uncovered evidence that an employee may have been directed to alter patient scheduling.

The Southern Nevada hospital was flagged for further investigation following a nationwide examination of patient wait times by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The North Las Vegas VA Medical Center hospital and one of its community based outreach clinics on South Buffalo Drive were among 112 medical facilities set aside for further review of scheduling practices.

The news triggered a strong reaction from Reid, who previously attributed problems at the Southern Nevada facility to growing pains. It opened in August 2012.

“I am greatly concerned by the results of the VA audit,” Reid said. “This is unacceptable and does not serve the needs of Nevada’s veterans. I fought hard so that Las Vegas could have a brand-new veterans hospital, and it is a disgrace this hospital has been mismanaged.”

Richard Beam, a spokesman for the VA facility, confirmed an employee told auditors of “being given direction by a supervisor that was not consistent with our scheduling policy.” That policy, as VA officials had said previously, was that all appointments be properly recorded on an electronic wait list.

The supervisor, whom Beam did not identify, “left VA employment approximately six months ago and the current practice for scheduling is consistent with policy.”

In a report two weeks ago, the VA inspector general said that in some facilities, schedulers were told by higher-ups how to fudge appointment data in order to mask long wait times for veterans to see doctors.

Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., said he was planning to speak later Monday with Isabel Duff, director of the VA Southern Nevada Health Care System. Heller said he expected “a frank discussion about what more must be done to address Nevada’s veterans’ healthcare concerns.”

The audit reported Monday was the agency’s first look at 731 VA hospitals and large outpatient clinics. It found patients facing long waits for initial appointments with primary care doctors and specialists.

The agency’s complicated appointment process created confusion among scheduling clerks and supervisors, the VA said.

The audit said a 14-day goal for seeing first-time patients was unattainable given the growing demand among veterans for health care and poor planning. The VA has since abandoned that goal.

It concluded more than 57,000 patients are still waiting for initial medical appointments at VA hospitals and clinics 90 days or more after requesting them. An additional 64,000 who enrolled in the VA health care system over the past 10 years have never had appointments.

In Las Vegas, the average wait time for new patients was about 50 days, and 2,234 patients have been waiting 90 days or more to get an appointment, the audit found.

The audit said 13 percent of VA schedulers reported supervisors telling them to falsify appointment dates to make waiting times appear shorter.

The VA initiated the audit in the wake of allegations that schedulers in Phoenix and other medical centers manipulated patient scheduling to mask long waits for appointments.

Officials at the VA’s medical center in North Las Vegas had insisted there is no schedule manipulation that has taken place at the facility that opened in August 2012. Heller and Nevada Rep. Dina Titus, who sit on veterans affairs committees in Congress, had said no allegations have been brought to their attention.

But hospital officials have conceded that veterans face inordinately long waits of up to six months to schedule cataract surgery and hip or knee replacements, and also long waits for appointments to see a dermatologist, podiatrist an ear, nose and throat specialists.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau chief Steve Tetreault at 202-783-1760 or STetreault@stephensmedia.com Follow @STetreaultDC on Twitter.