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Colorado VA Kept Secret Wait Lists for Mental Health Care: Report

In this June 21, 2013, file photo, the seal affixed to the front of the Department of Veterans Affairs building in Washington. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
In this June 21, 2013, file photo, the seal affixed to the front of the Department of Veterans Affairs building in Washington. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

A new government watchdog group found that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs facility in Denver violated policy by keeping improper wait lists to track mental health care that veterans received.

Investigators with the VA Office of Inspector General confirmed whistleblower and former VA employee Brian Smother's claim that staff kept unauthorized lists instead of using the department's official wait list system.

That made it impossible to know if veterans who needed referrals for group therapy and other mental health care were getting timely assistance, according to the report. The internal investigation also criticized record-keeping in PTSD cases at the VA's facility in Colorado Springs.

Patients there often went longer than the department's stated goals of getting an initial consult within a week and treatment within 30 days, investigators found. In one case, a veteran killed himself 13 days after contacting the clinic, which was supposed to see him within a week.

Investigators said the unofficial lists did not always identify the veteran or requested date of care, and they could not determine how many veterans were waiting to receive help and for how long, even with the help of staff at the facilities.

"My worst fears have been realized in this Inspector General's report that Chairman Johnson and I demanded," Colorado Republican Senator Cory Gardener said in a statement. "It highlights even more VA mismanagement and lack of accountability in Colorado. This cannot happen again, and it's time for the VA to finally wake up and ensure our men and women are getting the best care possible. I will continue to work with Chairman Johnson to ensure the accountability that somehow the VA refuses to accept."

Smothers, who worked at the VA in Denver as a peer support specialist on the post-traumatic stress disorder clinical support team, informed Gardner and his fellow senator, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, last about the VA facilities in Denver and nearby Golden using wait lists for mental health services from 2012 until last September. Gardner resigned from his post at the VA shortly after going public, citing retaliation from VA officials in Colorado.

"Putting veterans on secret wait lists is not acceptable," Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson said in a statement. "The VA should implement changes to provide the highest quality care for our veterans and hold wrongdoers accountable. I thank Brian Smothers, the whistleblower who bravely came forward to shed a light on these unacceptable practices at the VA so they can be prevented in the future."

Speaking to the Associated Press, Smothers said he was disappointed the report didn't make clearer that VA staff knew full well what they were doing. "We renamed the files 'interest lists' so people wouldn't know we were breaking the rules" on how to maintain wait lists, Smothers said.

The VA Eastern Colorado Health Care system said in a statement that while it agreed with much of the report's findings it bristled at the idea that its wait lists were "secret." The statement says that "nothing about this process was secret" and that it was discontinued once staff became aware it violated VA policies.

The VA Eastern Colorado Health Care system said in a statement that while it agreed with much of the report's findings it bristled at the idea that its wait lists were "secret." The statement says that "nothing about this process was secret" and that it was discontinued once staff became aware it violated VA policies.

The Associated Press contributed reporting to this piece.