Audit Confirms Data Manipulation at VA; New VA Secretary Confirmed

July 30, 2014 in News

Staff at more than 100 Department of Veterans Affairs health clinics across the U.S. used methods other than the department’s official electronic appointment tracking system to make it appear that veterans had shorter wait times for care, according to a USA Today analysis of a VA audit released Tuesday, USA Today reports.

The audit — which involved more than 3,200 staffers at more than 700 VA health centers — was requested earlier this year by former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki in light of allegations that some VA centers were manipulating data to falsely indicate shorter veteran appointment wait times.

The results were presented to President Obama on May 30, the day of Shinseki’s resignation, and made public earlier this week.

The analysis showed at least one appointment scheduler at 109 VA health centers reported data on veterans’ wait times had been falsified, with some respondents saying they felt pressured to manipulate data. In addition, the analysis found that 110 VA facilities maintained secret waiting lists.

Specifically, the analysis showed:

  • Respondents at several VA medical centers — including Erie VA Medical Center in Pa. and Oklahoma City VA Medical Center — did not report any instances of tracking appointments outside the official electronic wait list or being told to falsify data;
  • The percentage of staffers who reported being instructed to falsify data ranged from 2.4% of respondents at VA San Diego Healthcare System to 57.1% of respondents at Central Alabama Veterans Health Care System; and
  • The percentage of respondents who reported tracking appointments outside the official electronic wait list ranged from 2.2% at Orlando VA Medical Center to 33.3% at Tuscaloosa VA Medical Center in Alabama.

Meanwhile, internal VA data showed:

  • VA health centers with high rates of data manipulation had among the lowest official reports of wait times; and
  • VA health centers with low rates of data manipulation had among the highest official reports of wait times.

The VA Inspector General and the Department of Justice are expected to complete a broader investigation into the data manipulation next month (Zoroya/Hoyer, USA Today, 7/30).

In response to evidence of data manipulation among VA employees, the department in a statement proposed disciplinary action against six staff members at VA health clinics in Cheyenne, Wyo., and Fort Collins, Colo., the Los Angeles Times reports (Bratek/Sanders, Los Angeles Times, 7/29).

VA also proposed firing two of the employees (USA Today, 7/30).

Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson said, “Employees who have been found to have manipulated data, withheld accurate information from their supervisors, and affected the timeliness of care Veterans receive do not reflect VA’s values, and their actions will not be tolerated” (Los Angeles Times, 7/29).

Lawmakers Propose Health IT Solutions To Address VA Issues

In related news, House and Senate negotiators on Monday unveiled legislation to address long wait times for care at VA health centers, including expanding telehealth services.

The legislation is expected to cost about $17 billion, including $12 billion in new emergency funding and $5 billion from spending cuts within the VA system (O’Keefe, Washington Post, 7/28).

Among other things, the bill would require VA to:

  • Create a special task force to examine its current scheduling software system and make recommendations for improvements (Government Health IT, 7/30);
  • Expand telehealth services through its mobile veterans centers and mobile medical units, which serve rural and underserved areas; and
  • Update its scheduling software system (Pittman, Politico, 7/29).

The bill would give VA one year to act on the requirements (Government Health IT, 7/30).

Senate Confirms McDonald as VA Secretary

Meanwhile, the Senate on Tuesday voted 97-0 to confirm Robert McDonald as VA secretary, the Wall Street Journal reports (Kesling, Wall Street Journal, 7/29).

President Obama nominated McDonald — a West Point graduate and former Procter Gamble CEO — on June 30. McDonald replaces acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson, who had taken over the post in May after Shinseki resigned (Hicks, “The Fed Page,” Washington Post, 7/29).

According to the Washington Post‘s “Federal Eye,” McDonald during his confirmation hearing promised to take several actions during his first 90 days as VA secretary, including working to:

  • Better ensure the accuracy and timeliness of VA data to assist with decision-making and oversight;
  • Develop a system to reward VA whistleblowers for reporting legitimate issues;
  • Enhance and expand the agency’s use of technology;
  • Improve communication and collaboration between the VA headquarters and regional VA offices; and
  • Work to improve data sharing between VA and the Department of Defense (Hicks, “Federal Eye,” Washington Post, 7/30).
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