Our nation vows to take care of its veterans, but VA hospitals continue to delay patient care appointments, in some cases long enough to result in death. Now, Iowa Republican Senator Chuck Grassley says the Department of Veterans Affairs is trying to hide just how bad the wait times are.
When the VA reported that Iowa veterans never had to wait longer than 90 days for appointments, a whistleblower produced data revealing that more than 1500 veterans had to wait longer than 90 days to receive care – with hundreds waiting as long as two years.
The problem may lie with hospital managers who are allegedly instructing staff to falsify wait time data.
VA Reports No Iowa Vets Waited Over 90 Days for Care – Not So
On March 22, 2017, the Department of Veterans Affairs supplied data on two Iowa medical centers showing zero patient wait times of over 90 days – a claim that appeared suspect right off the bat. Committee staff immediately questioned the data. Grassley reports that the VA responded by confirming that there were no appointments after 90 days.
Whistleblower Claims 1500+ Vets Waited 90+ Days for Care
In response to the questioning, a former employee of an Iowa City VA hospital supplied documents showing that:
- 537 veterans waited 91-180 days for appointments
- 539 veterans waited 181-365 days for appointments
- 232 veterans waited 1-2 years for appointments
In addition, data from a Des Moines VA hospital showed hundreds of Iowa veterans had waited more than 90 days for appointments.
“The appearance of an attempt to mislead the committee about the extent of the wait times in these facilities is extremely disturbing,” Senator Grassley said. “As of March 2017, hundreds of veterans were waiting for an appointment between 1 and 2 years. This is completely unacceptable.”
Wait Times a Scandal After 40 Vets Die Waiting for Appointments
VA policy is to report veteran “wait times” as the number of days between the desired date (the day the veteran asks to be seen) and the actual appointment date. Scandal around wait times erupted when, in 2014, a former employee of the Ocotillo primary care clinic in the southern Arizona VA system claimed management instructed staff to record appointment dates and desired dates as the same date, reflecting patient wait times as zero.
Meanwhile, as many as 40 veterans died while waiting for appointments. On September 28, 2013, a doctor examined 71-year-old Navy veteran Thomas Breen who was seeing blood in his urine. Breen’s physician decided the situation was urgent and asked that a urologist evaluate Breen within one week.
Breen and his wife called the VA daily for two months trying to get an appointment, until Breen lost his life to bladder cancer on November 30. Six days later, the VA called to schedule his “urgent” appointment.
In November 2016, the VA inspector general confirmed that managers at the Tuscon-based VA hospital told nurses to record the appointment date as the desired date. In addition, the inspector general found that VA hospital executives pressured employees to alter patient wait times whenever wait times exceeded seven days 92% of the time.
Grassley is currently co-sponsoring legislation that would make it easier to terminate VA employees for poor performance and violations.
Grassley Doesn’t Fall for Shulkin’s Claims of Misunderstanding
In response to Senator Grassley’s probe into the contradiction between the Iowa VA hospital’s reported wait times and the whistleblower’s data on actual wait times, VA Secretary David Shulkin said, “I assure you that was not our intent and believe this was a case of misunderstanding between VA and committee staff.”
Grassley replied to Shulkin stating, “It is difficult to believe the inaccurate information that the VA provided, which hid the true extent of lengthy wait times at two Iowa facilities, was merely due to a misunderstanding. I brought up the lack of wait times after 90 days twice. The last time I did so, I specifically said, ‘Are you sure, are you absolutely positive, that there are no wait times over 90 days?’ The VA representatives responded yes and further noted that they had double checked the over-90-day numbers that morning and could confirm that the numbers were correct.”
Grassley reports that VA officials eventually confirmed the accuracy of the data supplied by the whistleblower.
“How can veterans, Congress and the public have confidence that the VA is turning itself around when it apparently misrepresents basic facts?” Grassley said. “The VA has to come clean about wait times in Iowa and the rest of the country. We need to get past the point of burying bad news or the VA will never reliably deliver what veterans deserve – good health care in a timely manner.”