WASHINGTON — Thousands of veterans in the Mid-Atlantic region waited longer than 30 days for medical care at Department of Veterans Affairs facilities last year but were excluded from private-sector treatment due to errors in VA wait-time data, government inspectors have found.
The VA inspector general's office issued a report Thursday detailing wait times for veterans at 12 facilities in North Carolina and Virginia that stretched beyond the 30-day goal established by the VA. Because of inaccuracies in tracking how long veterans waited for an appointment, inspectors estimated approximately 13,800 veterans attempting to get an appointment at those facilities should've been granted the option of private-sector care but were not.
When veterans were referred to the private sector through the Veterans Choice Program, they still faced delays, the report states. Inspectors estimated 82 percent of appointments made through program from April 2016 to January 2017 in those states had wait times longer than 30 days.
The report identified ongoing problems similar to ones discovered in 2014, when the VA was rocked by news of veterans suffering long delays for medical care.
"VA data reliability continues to be a high-risk area," Assistant Inspector General Larry Reinkemeyer wrote in the report. "[The Office of Inspector General] has reported that access to health care has been a recurring issue in [the Veterans Health Administration] for over a decade. This audit demonstrates that many of the same access to care conditions reported over the last decade continued to exist… in 2016."
The inspector general's report found 33 percent of primary care appointments had wait times longer than 30 days, but VA records showed only 17 percent faced delays that long. For mental health care, inspectors determined 16 percent waited longer than 30 days, though VA records showed 5 percent did.
Inspectors found 39 percent of specialty care appointments had wait times longer than 30 days, but the VA scheduling system showed only 8 percent.
Errors were made when staff entered "incorrect" or "unsupported" information that "made it appear as though the wait time was 30 days or less," the report states.
The report gave one example of a veteran requesting a mental health care appointment in July 2015 and not receiving an appointment until Nov. 20 of that year. A scheduler marked Nov. 20 as the veteran's preferred appointment date, so VA records reflect a zero-day wait.
VA Secretary David Shulkin was undersecretary for health at the time of the inspector general's review. In a written response to the report, he said the VA had made "tremendous strides" since the review was conducted, including faster access to veterans needing urgent care needs, more overall medical appointments and new rules for schedulers.
Shulkin has recently acknowledged issues with access to care, and with the Veterans Choice Program. He will testify before the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs on Tuesday during a hearing on the future of the program.
However, he disagreed with some of the report findings and said inspectors "ignored the dates patients told us they wanted to be seen."
"[The Veterans Health Administration] believes it is very important to respect veterans preferences for when they want to be seen," Shulkin wrote in response. "We want patients to be seen today if they want care today, and to be seen next week if they want care next week."
Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C., wrote in a statement Friday that the report "shines a light on a systemic, bureaucratic problem at the VA." He called for another response from the department about how the problems are being addressed.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., also asked for a briefing from VA leadership.
"Though the report does not find intentional misreporting, it does find that actual wait times are drastically longer than what is being reported," Kaine said in a statement.
The full inspector general's report can be found here.