An internal Department of Veterans Affairs watchdog told Congress last week that nine in ten PTSD patients at a Colorado Springs clinic had their wait times “inaccurately recorded.”
The phony wait times mean patients in Colorado Springs waited weeks and months longer for care than was recorded in VA records, making some of the agency’s worst wait times in the nation even longer. The report, the latest in a series of scheduling scandals here, found that veterans seeking PTSD care in Colorado Springs “experienced underreported delays and may not have received (PTSD) treatment.”
“It’s a failure of leadership, there’s no doubt,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, a Republican from Aurora and frequent critic of VA care.
The average veteran seeking mental health help in Colorado Springs had their care delayed by more than 50 days over what VA recorded in patient records. For 320 veterans seeking care, the Lindstrom Clinic on Fillmore Street recorded no wait at all, when significant waits were experienced.
Sallie Houser-Hanfelder, director of VA health care in Colorado, blamed the errors on “inadequate scheduling system software and complex scheduling rules.” In a letter responding to the report, she said VA staff said workers recorded phony wait times because they “believed it to be acceptable at the time.”
The VA report was requested by Congress last year after revelations of secret waiting lists at VA facilities in Colorado for patients suffering from post-traumatic stress and other maladies.
The report, compiled by VA’s inspector general, found that the Colorado Springs clinic falsely reported that all of its patients seeking PTSD care got help within 30 days. Instead, 64 percent of 350 patients who got care waited longer than a month. Another 240 patients got no care at all, with 40 of those patients having their requests for care “inappropriately closed.”
The inspector general found that “just over 91 percent of appointments were scheduled using inaccurate clinically-indicated dates.” That means workers in the clinic used the wrong date, manipulating wait times reported to VA headquarters.
Congress has pushed VA to shorten waits for mental health care in the wake of what lawmakers call a suicide crisis among those who have served. A study by the agency released earlier this year found that 20 veterans take their own lives every day.
Colorado Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner said the VA report confirmed his “worst fears.”
“It highlights even more VA mismanagement and lack of accountability in Colorado,” Gardner said in an email. “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.”
The scheduling scandal comes as the agency emerges from years in the spotlight for its $1.1 billion cost overrun to construct a new hospital in Denver.
In Colorado Springs, VA opened its new 76,000 square-foot clinic in 2014 in a move that VA officials said would streamline care and cut wait times. Instead, wait times ballooned as VA leaders complained its new facility was too small for the job.
VA says it is fixing problems in Colorado Springs by adding a new chief of mental health and other employees to improve scheduling.
The inspector general cleared the Colorado Springs clinic of allegations that workers there falsified medical records after a veteran’s 2016 suicide. The report, though, found the veteran faced delayed care before his death.
A Gazette investigation in May found that Colorado Springs Marine veteran Noah Harter died by suicide in 2015 after similar VA mistakes. The agency has not released an internal review of that case.
VA has been under fire for long wait times in Colorado Springs for years. A report issued in early 2016 also called out the clinic for using phony wait times. That report found that 28 veterans had same-day appointments recorded in their records when they had actually waited an average of 76 days.
According to Veterans Affairs records, patients in Colorado Springs still face the longest wait times in America among large VA clinics. Nearly one patient in five waits more than a month for care. The 17-day average wait for mental health treatment in Colorado Springs is the fourth-worst among all VA facilities across the nation.
VA contends that its latest scheduling scandal stems from procedural errors rather than intentionally misleading actions. Coffman said it doesn’t matter.
“Its all the same whether there was intent or sheer incompetence,” Coffman said. “To the veteran it does not make a difference.”
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