DENVER (AP) — A watchdog arm of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said Thursday that the agency's Denver-area hospital violated policy by keeping improper wait lists to track veterans' mental health care.
Investigators with the VA Office of Inspector General confirmed a whistleblower's claim that staff kept unauthorized lists instead of using the department's official wait list system. That made it impossible to know if veterans who needed referrals for group therapy and other mental health care were getting timely assistance, according to the report.
The internal investigation also criticized record-keeping in PTSD cases at the VA's facility in Colorado Springs. Patients there often went longer than the department's stated goals of getting an initial consult within a week and treatment within 30 days, investigators found. In one case, a veteran killed himself 13 days after contacting the clinic, which was supposed to see him within a week.
Investigators said the unofficial lists did not always identify the veteran or requested date of care, and they could not determine how many veterans were waiting to receive help and for how long, even with the help of staff at the facilities.
"As a result, facility and mental health managers did not have access to accurate wait time data to help make informed staffing decisions and did not have assurance that all requests for care were adequately addressed," the report said.
Rep. Mike Coffman, who along with another Colorado congressman, the state's two senators and Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.) requested the investigation, said in an interview that the local VA's behavior reminded him of the 2014 VA scandal in Phoenix. Investigators there found that at least 35 patients died while waiting for care and medical staff falsified records to make it seem veterans were being seen promptly.
"At the end of the day it's the veterans who suffer," said Coffman, adding he was going to talk to the Secretary of the VA about the Colorado situation.
Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) said the report confirmed his "worst fears."
“It highlights even more VA mismanagement and lack of accountability in Colorado. 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," Gardner added in a prepared statement.
A spokesperson for Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., said the report makes it clear the state VA "has a long way to go toward delivering proper care."
"Michael believes that VA leadership must immediately take steps to ensure that the VA addresses the problems outlined in this report. Moving forward, the VA must ensure the necessary resources are in place so our veterans receive the timely and high-quality care they deserve.”
The VA Eastern Colorado Health Care system said in a statement that while it agreed with much of the report's findings it bristled at the idea that its wait lists were "secret." The statement says that "nothing about this process was secret" and that it was discontinued once staff became aware it violated VA policies.
Brian Smothers, the former VA employee whose complaints got the investigation underway, said he was disappointed the report didn't make clearer that VA staff knew full well what they were doing. "We renamed the files 'interest lists' so people wouldn't know we were breaking the rules" on how to maintain wait lists, Smothers said.
Smothers said the lists hid how long it takes for veterans to get treatment and made the demand for mental health care appear lower than it really was.
Smothers, 38 was a peer support specialist on the VA's post-traumatic stress disorder clinical support team in Denver. Smothers said he started the job in April 2015 but quit last November after he was subjected to retaliation for speaking out. He said he's now working in graphic design and considering graduate school.
Johnson, chairman of the senate's Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee, said in a statement: "Putting veterans on secret wait lists is not acceptable. The VA should implement changes to provide the highest quality care for our veterans and hold wrongdoers accountable."