The Department of Veterans Affairs on Wednesday denied wrongdoing in the alleged deletion of thousands of medical appointment requests at the Greater Los Angeles Veterans Medical Center beginning in 2009.
A report in The Daily Caller on Tuesday quoted a former VA scheduling clerk with the center as saying employees were told to purge test requests in order to clean up its backlog of appointments.
Oliver Mitchell, a former Marine and scheduling clerk with the VA’s Los Angeles center, told the Caller that his supervisor ordered the purge to make it appear the center was not way behind in getting vets in for requested appointments. In particular, he said, were magnetic resonance imaging appointments, or MRIs.
"In order to show favorable results, we needed to delete as many orders as possible," said Mitchell, citing his supervisor’s instructions. "He went on to say that it was all a numbers game and we had to play the system. He then directed me to begin deleting all orders pertaining to MRI [at] the clinic in which I work. I refused."
Mitchell filed a whistleblower complaint with the VA’s Inspector General’s Office in March 2009, saying the deletions were to go back as far as 2000. The VA’s IG office said Wednesday that it found nothing in its preliminary inquiry to warrant an investigation.
VA spokesman Drew Brookie said the Los Angeles center "did identify that there were large numbers of very old imaging requests in the system ... and did perform a carefully planned project of administratively clearing [them] after an extensive review."
VA policy is that if patients do not show up for appointments or fail to respond to scheduling attempts, the test orders are discontinued after 12 months. The policy is based on an agreement by VA chiefs of clinical services that orders older than a year would have no clinical relevance, and that patients would need to be re-evaluated by their doctors before ordering the test again.
The VA says the staff deleted the outdated requests after ensuring that each one met the criteria for removal.
Military.com made several attempts to reach Mitchell for comment but was not successful.
Mitchell began writing about the deletions on a blog he began in March 2013. Called "A Veterans Whistleblower Story," the site includes several audio recordings. Some are recordings of telephone calls, though it is not clear who he is speaking with or if they know they are being recorded.
In a blog entry called "The Set Up," Mitchell alleges federal agencies had begun putting him under surveillance, then listed a number of incidents suggesting agencies are out to hurt or kill him.
In one recording he suggests that the VA misdiagnosed with him with pertussis in order to remove him from work for a month and then changed the diagnoses to something else. Another doctor eventually diagnosed him with cystic fibroses, which, he says in the recording, "has been confirmed."
One recording, which The Daily Caller posted with its story, is an excerpt from a meeting with VA officials and colleagues at the LA center to discuss deleting the appointments.
On that audio, several people can be heard discussing the backlog of appointments. One individual – whom Mitchell identifies as a doctor – said they need to begin by getting patients in for testing within 25 days of a request. And any request older than a year should be cancelled, the speaker says, because "a lot of our patients have had their [test] done somewhere else, have had their surgery, have gotten better or just died while waiting for services."
The order for the deletions reportedly was made in November 2008 and begun in early 2009.
The recording also suggests that a request for a "mass purge" of old appointments would not be done, with one speaker, whom Mitchell identifies as an information systems manager, saying "nobody wants to even take the chance, [for] fear of losing their job or something."
Catherine Gromek, congressional relations officer with the VA’s Inspector General’s Office, said the agency contacted the center’s director after receiving a complaint on its hotline in March 2009 that MRI appointments were being deleted from the system for 2000 through November 2008 without proper notification.
"The director responded that the [VA’s] National Radiology Director instructed all imaging services across the country to mass purge all outstanding imaging orders for studies older than six months, where the procedure was no longer needed, and with approval from the individual healthcare system’s Medical Executive Committee," she said.
The IG was satisfied with the response and did not open an investigation.
Mitchell, on his Blogger website, appears to direct criticism at Linda Halliday, assistant IG for audits and inspections at the VA, for not accepting the evidence he says he provided, but opting "to try and set me up by sending me on my [merry] way."
-- Bryant Jordan can be reach at email@example.com
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