Staff at the VA Medical Center in San Diego manipulated wait time data to make it appear veteran patients received mental health care more quickly than they actually did, according to an investigation done by the Veteran Affairs Office of the Inspector General.
The investigation launched in 2014 after two VA Medical Center employees called the OIG office to report the misconduct. This followed national coverage of a wait time scandal in Phoenix where 35 veterans died while waiting for VA care.
The Inspector General’s investigation, released Thursday, uncovered that medical schedulers were changing the date veteran patients requested to make it look like the department had shorter wait times. They also found many appointments were actually cancelled.
“I basically had been diagnosed with ADHD and PTSD so I was getting some [help at the VA,]” Army vet Debra Eggeman-Steffen explained. “Unfortunately, I haven’t been getting anything from the VA in a long time, like I said because of a lot of the problems that the VA was causing me.”
After waiting for mental health services for six months, another veteran became so frustrated that he tried to kill himself the report revealed.
Antonio De La Rosa, a Marine Corps veteran who did two tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, agreed there’s a huge problem.
“There’s so many veterans here and with the issues going on veterans are committing suicide and we need to have more help and it probably wouldn’t happen,” De La Rosa told NBC 7. “I know there are a lot of programs out there where it’s actually useful to veterans because a lot of veterans are afraid to admit that they have an issue, one or two, they’re just embarrassed…The wait time there could be a whole lot better. The programs there could be a whole lot better.”
“There’s some times when I have to go to the VA and I don’t even want to go because I’m like, you know what, they’re not going to do anything for me,” he said. “There’s tons of times when I need to go and I just don’t go because I feel like it’s pointless.”
The Inspector General reviewed scheduling data for fiscal years 2012 and 2013, and as a result Ray Deal, Deputy Chief for Health Administration Service for the VA, said actions have been taken to make sure appointments are given in a timely manner.
“These folks who were found in the reports to be working outside of the directive itself, we have absolutely conducted personnel action against them,” Deal said. “I’m not free to disclose what that is, but these folks were held accountable.”
The number of schedulers has also been reduced and each scheduler is now audited on a weekly basis.
The Inspector General’s report only focused on the mental health department of the VA.
San Diego Representative Scott Peters released a statement on the investigation Thursday. It reads:
“I’m disappointed and angry to learn the very type of VA malfeasance that I’ve railed against, that I’ve fought to eradicate, was happening here in San Diego. I’m particularly saddened to hear that another horrible wait time cover up contributed to a suicide attempt – which shows how desperately this veteran needed the help that was delayed by someone’s desire to put a sunny face on a dark problem.
“Congress was rightly shocked into action after learning of ‘schedule fixing’ most notably in Phoenix but also in other regions. How anyone could think it was better to cover up that veterans in need weren’t getting the care they’d earned, rather than speak up, is appalling and an egregious abuse of trust."
“I know VASDHS has acted to address these problems, and I commend them for taking the findings and recommendations made by the inspector general seriously. I will, however, follow up with Sec. McDonald to find out how it is that any of the people found responsible still have a job at the VA.”