Angry lawmakers are calling for a probe of misconduct at the Department of Veterans Affairs in light of a report that found that hundreds of veterans faced care delays at a Colorado Springs clinic, even as an agency spokesman disputed the findings.
Colorado U.S. Reps. Doug Lamborn and Mike Coffman were joined by House VA committee head Rep. Jeff Miller in calling for a congressional review of the Floyd K. Lindstrom Clinic, where the VA’s inspector general found 68 percent of 450 veteran cases reviewed faced delays of more than 30 days for care.
What angered lawmakers the most was the use of phony dates in a scheduling system for some cases that investigators said “made it appear the appointment wait time was less than 30 days.”
“This report documents blatant dishonesty and corruption, and the sad truth is that this same sort of behavior is routinely tolerated across the department,” Miller said.
The report, released Thursday, found that 28 patients’ records were manipulated to show they had same-day appointments when they actually waited an average of 76 days.
“I reject the notion that anywhere in this report it says we falsified data,” Denver VA spokesman Dan Warvi said.
Warvi contends that the records, including those that falsely showed same-day appointments, were correct according to a “local standard” in place until 2015. While he denied that workers falsified reports, he couldn’t explain the discrepancies for the 28 patients.
Lamborn said VA waits in Colorado Springs have claimed a life. In a letter to VA Secretary Bob McDonald, Lamborn said a veteran in Colorado Springs was deemed a suicide risk during an April visit to the Lindstrom Clinic but wasn’t referred for care. The former Marine killed himself six weeks later, Lamborn wrote.
Document: Review of alleged untimely care
“I am infuriated that your department continues to intentionally delay the medical care our nation’s veterans have earned,” the Colorado Springs Republican wrote.
Warvi said he couldn’t comment on Lamborn’s allegations because of patient privacy concerns.
Patient waits at the clinic remain among the longest in the country, VA records show. For the month ending Jan. 15, 5,036 veterans were waiting more than a month for appointments — 31 percent of all appointments scheduled at the facility that opened in August 2014.
Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Wes Clark said he and other leading local veterans’ advocates were told when the new clinic opened that waits for care would drop.
“We were assured at the beginning that this was going to be one of the best-run clinics in the country,” Clark said. “Just look at it now, only a few months after opening. Should be some criminal penalties for this.”
Warvi said the VA is working to shorten waits in Colorado Springs but is struggling to keep up with growing demand. The number of appointments there in 2015 rose to 170,000, up from 143,000 the previous year.
Warvi said the number of veterans seeking care in Colorado Springs is a sign that clients like the service they’re getting.
Veteran Tom Noonan of Colorado Springs said calling the VA’s mental-health crisis line didn’t get him a speedy psychiatric appointment at the Lindstrom Clinic.
“I called the crisis line in January, and they got me an appointment in March,” he said.
Colorado Springs VA client Mike Howard said he has struggled to get an appointment. He called in January and is also being seen in March. Howard said he has opted to pay for his own care rather than waiting on the VA.
“At some point, you say it’s not worth the struggle. It’s not worth the fight,” he said.
Vietnam veteran Bradley Clark, a retired emergency room physician, said tardy appointments “absolutely” can kill vets.
He had a protracted battle with the VA over treatment for his debilitating migraine headaches.
“It’s just a nightmare,” he said.
U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Yuma, said he’s fed up with VA care.
“I am damn tired of the disgraceful treatment the VA is giving our veterans,” Gardner said. “If they’re not going to drive reforms at the VA, then heads need to roll.”
Coffman, of Aurora, said the Colorado Springs investigation shows the VA’s inability to fix its own problems.
“The VA never ceases to disappoint me as a veteran,” said Coffman, who heads a House subcommittee for VA oversight. “There is no leadership in the VA that cares about serving those who served this nation.”
Coffman, Gardner and Lamborn say their biggest issue from the report is that the VA isn’t taking advantage of “Veterans Choice,” a program that allows veterans facing long waits to see private-sector doctors. The investigation found that of 450 cases reviewed, workers “did not add, or did not timely add, the 288 veterans” facing waits of more than a month to a referral list for Veterans Choice care.
Lamborn: Colorado Springs clinic ‘lied and heads need to roll’
Coffman said the investigations illustrates an ongoing reluctance from the VA to farm out patients to private care.
“If they allow it to work, what the Choice act will do is stimulate some kind of competition where the VA will have to treat the veterans as actual patients rather than numbers,” Coffman said.
Warvi said VA leaders are working to get more veterans to use Veterans Choice, referring 31,000 Colorado veterans to private care last year. But Warvi contends many veterans shun that option because they prefer VA care.
Lamborn wants the VA to fire Colorado Springs workers who caused the problems identified in the investigation.
“We have to keep working to uncover problems and to replace the people that cause them,” he said.
Warvi said the director of the Colorado Springs clinic who was in charge at the time of the problems revealed by the investigation has been replaced. Citing employee privacy, Warvi wouldn’t say whether that manager or any other workers faced disciplinary measures.
“There has been accountability,” he said,
Florida Rep. Miller said accountability in the VA is a joke.
“The reason these problems keep occurring throughout the department is because our dysfunctional federal civil service system makes it nearly impossible for VA to adequately discipline corrupt and incompetent employees,” he said.
Warvi said the VA’s Colorado Springs clinic, though, has remained compliant with agency standards for nearly a year since the investigation started and is doing the best it can.
“Until every veteran has a timely appointment with us, we will keep working,” he said.
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