The former chairwoman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee said last week the Department of Veterans Affairs failed to implement legislation she wrote two years ago to counter problems of gaming the appointments system.
Sen. Patty Murray's policy changes followed a 2012 hearing in which VA health administrators outlined methods that VA middle managers had created ways to hide long wait times for sick or injured veterans to see doctors.
Nicholas Tolentino, a former mental health administrator at the Manchester VA Medical Center in New Hampshire, told the Senate panel in May 2012 that VA hospital officials across the country shared workarounds for meeting VA appointment goals.
The overriding objective, "from top management on down, was to meet our numbers," Tolentino told the committee.
Murray, then chairwoman of the panel, said then that corrective action would be taken.
"This is not something we're going to hold a hearing on and then leave and go do something else … I don't want to continue to hear that anybody's gaming this system," she said.
Murray’s legislation was the Mental Health Access Act, which was passed as part of the National Defense Authorization Act in 2012, her office said. The law spelled out several ways the VA could improve delivery of mental health services, including a comprehensive suicide prevention program, expanded services for families, better training for providers, more peer to peer counseling, and more accurate and reliable measures for mental health care, with appropriate staffing.
Victoria Dillon, a spokeswoman for the VA, was not familiar with Murray's legislation, but an official with one of the country's largest veteran's organizations said it appears lawmakers didn't respond to witness testimony on gaming the system in 2012.
"It could have been another case of: ‘We heard this? ... Ok, then, let's move on to the next topic.'," said the official, who did not want to be identified.
Murray, who remains on the Senate panel, attended the May 15 hearing in which committee members grilled VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and the head of the Veterans Health Care Administration over allegations that some veterans allegedly died waiting to see a doctor.
Murray said VA's flawed methods for measuring wait times goes back at least to 2000, with the VA's Office of the Inspector General reporting the problem in 2005, 2007 and most recently as 2012, when it offered several recommendations to help resolve the problem.
"But now the IG recommendations are still open and the department still has not implemented legislation I offered to improve this situation," Murray said.
The recommendations included that the VA ensure that wait times begin when the veteran contacts the clinic or is referred to VA health care by another provider. It should also reevaluate alternative means of accurately measuring wait times and analyze staffing. Finally, VA officials also received recommendations to ensure that the data being collected meets VA operational needs and is relevant to decision makers.
Lawmakers and veterans groups have been outraged over allegations that up to 40 veterans on a secret waiting list may have died before seeing a doctor at the VA Medical Center in Phoenix, Ariz. The story was first reported by CNN.
The American Legion and a number of lawmakers have called on Shinseki and other top VA officials to resign. Shinseki has said he has no plans to do so unless President Obama asks for his resignation
A day after testifying alongside Shinseki on May 15 the head of the Veterans Healthcare Administration did resign. But Dr. Robert Petzel's departure has been widely viewed as political theater, since he had already put in for retirement and his successor nominated.
Meanwhile, allegations of secret wait lists and manipulated scheduling data are spreading.
VA officials are now looking into claims the system has been gamed at facilities in Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming, Florida, North Carolina and Texas. VA policy is that veterans get an appointment within two weeks of requesting one, but in some places veterans wait months and longer than a year.
-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org