Two key House members have called for an investigation into reports published by the Washington Examiner that the Department of Veterans Affairs purged thousands of medical appointments to hide backlogs of tests and consultations dating back 10 years.
House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Mich., said in a joint letter sent last week to Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki that they want the findings probed by the VA's Office of Medical Inspector, a unit within the agency that monitors health care issues.
Benishek reiterated his concerns about the practice in a meeting with Shinseki Friday.
Benishek, a former VA surgeon, is chairman of the House Veterans Affairs subcommittee on health.
McCarthy, the third-ranking Republican in the House, led previous calls for an investigation by the Government Accountability Office that last year found patient appointment dates were manipulated to make it appear medical visits were being scheduled within agency deadlines.
The Examiner reported Feb. 25 that VA mass-purged thousands of medical appointments by declaring them “administratively closed.”
That means the patient did not receive the care that had been ordered because the orders for the follow-up procedures were simply cancelled.
Agency officials refused to provide information on when the mass cancellations began, whether medical appointments were administratively closed at other VA facilities across the country, or the total number of procedures that were cancelled nationwide.
“The recent allegations, as reported by the Washington Examiner, of employees at the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System willfully manipulating and destroying as many as 40,000 backlogged veteran medical exam requests are appalling if true,” McCarthy wrote in a March 1 newsletter.
“This news underscores the problems veterans face when scheduling medical appointments to receive care and is an issue I continue to fight to reform,” McCarthy wrote.
In their letter to Shinseki, McCarthy and Benishek asked about the whistleblower complaint filed in 2009 by Oliver Mitchell, a former scheduling clerk at the VA hospital in Los Angeles who was quoted by the Examiner.
Mitchell said he was ordered to close unfilled appointments for medical tests as part of a “numbers game” to make it appear the facility was eliminating backlogged orders.
He refused and filed complaints with the VA inspector general and the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, both of which were dismissed after agency officials claimed the purge was allowed by policy.
In their letter to Shinseki, McCarthy and Benishek asked the medical inspector’s office to conduct an investigation to determine whether hospital officials in Los Angeles improperly cancelled backlogged appointments.
If it did occur, the congressmen want to know if there was any record of the decision, whether medical files were destroyed and if similar complaints of a mass purge have been filed in other VA offices.
They also asked if anyone would be disciplined if appointments were improperly cancelled.
In a written statement, Benishek called the reports of a mass purge “disturbing,” adding that “these alleged actions look like bureaucracy in its worse form -- and the people who are being hurt are our veterans.”
Benishek spent 20 years as a doctor at the veterans agency. “I can’t imagine how any professional could operate in this manner. The VA needs to give us some answers as to whether or not these allegations are accurate,” he said.
Robert Petzel, under secretary for health at VA, dismissed the Examiner's findings as “scurrilous” during a hearing of Benishek's subcommittee last week.
Petzel told the committee only 300 procedures were administratively closed in Los Angeles several years ago as part of an extensive review of scheduled tests.
Questioned by reporters after the hearing, he said he was referring only to “radiology examinations” at the Los Angeles facilities.
He claimed he was unaware of allegations concerning 40,000 cancelled procedures in Los Angeles and 13,000 in Dallas, even though his top deputies were grilled about them during a 2013 hearing by the House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.
McCarthy attended that March 2013 hearing, though he is not a member of the subcommittee.
The Examiner obtained internal VA documents showing the 13,000 appointments in Dallas were cancelled in about a week in September 2012.
It is unclear when the purge began in Los Angeles, though Mitchell’s complaint says he was ordered to remove the appointments in November 2008.
Petzel told the veterans’ subcommittee no one who needed care was denied care as a result of the administrative closing of appointments.