The health care system run by the US Department of Veterans Affairs is the nation’s largest, serving about 9 million people. Earlier this year, an audit showed that some new patients were being forced to wait nearly two months for a first appointment. Big changes have been made, with a new Secretary of Veterans Affairs, and intense scrutiny of the hospitals and clinics run by the VA. We spoke with the director of the Puget Sound VA Hospital, and with Washington state’s director of Veterans Affairs to find out what this means for Evergreen State vets.
Feliks Banel: Adam Ashton is the Military Beat Reporter at the News Tribune in Tacoma. He’s a former war correspondent, and he’s been following the VA Hospital crisis for much of 2014.
Adam Ashton: So we started covering the VA this year because we were getting calls from Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who were having trouble getting appointments. So we followed one Iraq veteran who moved to this area to go to graduate school, and it took him eight months to see a primary care doctor.
Banel: In June, the VA’s Inspector General released a report that showed some vets were waiting up to 59 days to get an appointment at VA hospitals in Seattle and Tacoma. Michael Murphy is director of the VA Puget Sound Health Care System.
Michael Murphy: Our wait times in some instances have reduced significantly. For example our primary care waits currently now are for a new patient are at about 35 days and for an established patient about 6 days.
Banel: Are you happy with 35 days?
Murphy: It’s certainly better than the 60 that it was about five months ago. But no, I’d like to get it down to significantly less than even 35 if we could.
Banel: I asked Senator Patty Murray, a member of the Senate Veterans Committee, if she has confidence in Murphy making further improvements.
Senator Patty Murray: Well, I think that is a matter of whether or not he is going to implement the changes that are necessary. I think that we have a lot of really great people who work at the VA. We have people who go to work every day and go outside their capabilities to meet veterans’ needs but when we still have veterans who are waiting too long when we still have veterans with mental health issues that aren’t getting in on time, umm, you can’t just say we’re doing everything we can.
Banel: The VA Hospital in Phoenix—where the crisis emerged—has come under fire for “cooking the books” to hide long wait times. Adam Ashton says that the same thing was happening here, and that the VA Inspector General is still looking into the situation. He points to a VA report from July that says some staffers at VA Puget Sound were told by supervisors to misreport scheduling data.
Ashton: I can read it. The question was, “do you feel you receive instructions from the facility to enter a desired date other than the date the veteran has asked to be seen?” So the veteran calls and says, “I want an appointment on this day.” The small sample size that spoke to the auditors said, “yeah, we’re instructed to give a different date sometimes” for whatever reason. It could be doctor’s not available. For some reason, we have to change the date. It might not be nefarious, but they felt that they were told to do that.
Banel: Was anyone at VA Puget Sound cooking the books?
Murphy: No, nobody did at all we’ve been able to ascertain . . . When the audit folks came through and did audits of our schedulers they certainly didn’t pick up on anything of concern.
Banel: But Adam Ashton isn’t satisfied. He’s waiting to hear more from the VA’s Inspector General.
Ashton: The IG had flagged dozens of VA hospitals for more review, and the VA Puget Sound’s one of them. So we wanna find out what is the IG gonna say about this hospital. Something got their attention. They haven’t told us or, really, the VA administrators here what they’re looking at, so I expect some kind of follow-up report to explain what drew the IG to this area in the first place.