by Dennis Wagner
Department of Veterans Affairs administrators knew two years ago that employees throughout the Southwest were manipulating data on doctor appointments and failed to stop the practice despite a national directive, according to records obtained by The Arizona Republic through a Freedom of Information Act request.
A 2012 audit by the VA’s Southwest Health Care Network found that facilities in Arizona, New Mexico and western Texas chronically violated department policy and created inaccurate data on patient wait times via a host of tactics.
The practice allowed VA employees to reap bonus pay that was based in part on inaccurate data showing goals had been met to reduce delays in patient care, according to the VA Office of Inspector General. At the Phoenix medical center alone, reward checks totaled $10 million over the past three years.
Top officials at the Phoenix VA Health Care System, including Sharon Helman, who was suspended as director last month, have repeatedly claimed they were not aware of scheduling misconduct until complaints by whistle-blower physician Sam Foote were made public in April.
But audit findings, based on a review of data from the second quarter of fiscal 2011, show the violations proliferated throughout the Southwest and were common nationwide.
The report notes that former VA Undersecretary Robert Petzel, who resigned under fire in May, convened a conference call with Health Administration Services leaders nationwide in September 2011 to confront the problem. According to the audit, Petzel pressed department executives “not to ‘game’ the system.”
A year earlier, William Schoenhard, then a VA deputy undersecretary, described and prohibited various “gaming strategies” used nationwide to falsify wait-time data. His directive made top regional administrators responsible for ensuring the integrity of medical appointment systems and required annual reviews.
Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson last week directed all VA medical center and health-care system directors to do monthly in-person site inspections and reviews of scheduling practices in every clinic in their jurisdiction to ensure adherence to policies.
That sort of scrutiny was supposed to have occurred after the 2012 audit.Helman became director of the Phoenix VA Health Care System in February 2012, a month after the Southwest audit was issued. She made timely medical appointments her system’s No. 1 priority and implemented a “wildly important goal” program.
E-mails between Helman, Susan Bowers and others — obtained via a public records request — verify that VA leaders in Arizona were intensely aware of scheduling compliance problems during 2013.Bowers was forced to retire last month as director of the VA’s Southwest regional health-care office.