Hospital Procedures Under Question at U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs

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By LeMara Perry
VA Hospital

The Obama Administration is under fire after recent allegations arose accusing government officials of falsifying data to conceal how long veterans were waiting to see doctors at VA hospitals, which falls under the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the federal government’s largest employer.

On Memorial Day, a day on which those who died in active military service are remembered, President Obama vowed better care for veterans here on the home front. “As we’ve been reminded in recent days, we must do more to keep faith with our veterans and their families, and ensure they get the care and benefits and opportunities that they’ve earned and that they deserve,” Obama said. “These Americans have done their duty, they ask nothing more than that our country does ours now and for decades to come,” he said.

Many Americans, as well as Senate Republican leaders, are calling for the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, who has served for five years. The VA’s inspector general, Richard J. Griffin is investigating 26 hospitals including, the Atlanta VA, Gainesville VA and Phoenix VA, to determine whether employees covered up long waits for medical appointments.

Last month, in a testimony to the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, Griffin said his office would be working with the U.S. Attorney office in Arizona and the Justice Department’s public integrity section “so that we can determine any conduct that we discover that merits criminal prosecution.”

The chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, meanwhile, signaled that as lawmakers step up oversight of the VA, his committee would look into whether Congress was providing enough funding to the department. The VA requires its hospitals to provide care to patients in a timely manner, typically within 14 to 30 days. However this hasn’t been happening in this time frame, which has become the crux of the scandal.

Light of the scandal originated in Phoneix, Arizona has shown that high level officials in the federal VA department have been instructing state VA hospitals to conceal records that would reveal VA patients are not being seen in a timely manner, and in several instances, some veterans have died because of lack of care.

USA Today reported in May that a report by the VA’s Office of Medical Inspector found that clerks at a clinic in Fort Collins were instructed on how to falsify records so it appeared that doctors were seeing 14 patients a day, a number within the agency’s goal to help reduce the appointment backlog.

In 2012, The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs implemented electronic wait-time tracking, after the Government Accountability Office described the Veterans Health Administration reporting of outpatient medical-appointment wait times as “unreliable.”

In October of 2013, Dr. Sam Foote, a doctor of internal medicine at the Phoenix VA, filed a complaint with the VA Office of Inspector General alleging purported successes in reducing wait times stem from manipulation of data, and that vets are dying while awaiting appointments for medical care.

For six months, CNN reported on extended delays in healthcare appointments and deaths suffered by veterans across the country while waiting to receive appointments and care.
According to an internal document from the U.S. Department of Internal Affairs, obtained by CNN dealing with patients diagnosed with cancer in 2010 and 2011, 19 veterans, waiting for colonoscopies and endoscopies, had died.

As many as 7,000 veterans were on a backlog list — waiting too long for colonoscopies and endoscopies — at VA facilities in Columbia, South Carolina and Augusta, Georgia. Barry Coates, an Army veteran who has suffered from a delay in care, is just one of many the veterans who has reported that due to long waiting procedures by the VA, his initial medical issues have worsened.

In 2011, Coates suffered from pain and rectal bleeding. He reported going to several VA clinics and hospitals in South Carolina seeking help. After being seen, he says he was diagnosed with hemorrhoids and was told he might need a colonoscopy. Coates waited months to have his colonoscopy, among the growing list of veterans also waiting for appointments and procedures. Months later, he was finally told he could have a colonoscopy. About a year after his initial doctors visit, Coates got a colonoscopy and doctors discovered a cancerous tumor the size of a baseball. The now 44-year-old veteran is undergoing chemotherapy for rectal cancer.

Coates story is just one of the many in a tide of disability claims from soldiers who were injured in wars Iraq and Afghanistan and stories like Coates’ have inundated the VA. Disabled service members are typically told about disability benefits before being discharged and can file for them upon leaving the military. The backlog that Congress and the public are focused on comes from when a veteran has filed a claim but the VA has not made a decision on whether to grant it.

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