A Texas congressman joined demands that Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki explain the mass purge of medical appointments disclosed last week by the Washington Examiner.
Rep. Pete Olson, R-Texas, wants to know who allowed backlogged orders for medical tests or other procedures to be “administratively closed,” meaning the appointments were cancelled but the veterans did not get the care that was ordered.
Olson also asked in a letter sent Wednesday to Shinseki how many valid appointments have been cancelled and what the agency is doing to ensure hospital administrators are not using the closures to “game the system” by making it appear they are fixing backlogs of treatment orders.
Citing congressional hearings and internal documents from the veterans' agency, the Examiner reported Feb. 25 that about 40,000 appointments were cancelled in Los Angeles and another 13,000 in Dallas.
VA has refused to say where else the mass-purging practice was used or how many appointments were administratively cancelled nationwide.
“I was shocked to read news reports that document the systematic and widespread practice of senior Department of Veterans Affairs officials not only condoning, but encouraging the deletion of medical appointment orders in a false attempt to reduce the inexcusable backlog,” Olson, a former Navy pilot, said in the letter to Shinseki.
“It is shocking and unacceptable for the VA to treat America's veterans in a way that risks their health and livelihood,” said Olson, whose district is in the Houston area.
“You and I both know that the men and women who risk their lives to defend our country deserve the very best health care we can provide, not a shameless process that rewards malfeasance,” Olson said.
Olson joined earlier calls from key House Republicans who asked for answers the agency refuses to provide to the Examiner.
House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Mich., sent a joint letter to Shinseki shortly after the Examiner story appeared asking for details on the cancellations.
Benishek is chairman of the House Veterans Affairs subcommittee on health.
VA has a history of falsifying reported wait-times to make it appear individual medical centers are meeting department-imposed deadlines for treatment, according to investigations by the agency’s inspector general and the independent Government Accountability Office.
Performance reviews and bonuses of hospital administrators are based in part on their meeting agency-imposed deadlines on patient care.
Olson asked whether anyone caught trying to “game the system” by falsifying reported wait-times has been disciplined.
Agency documents obtained by the Examiner show the 13,000 appointments in Dallas were closed in September 2012.
Oliver Mitchell, a former scheduling clerk at the VA Greater Los Angeles Medical Center, told the Examiner he was ordered to improperly cancel backlogged appointments in November 2008.
He refused and filed whistleblower complaints in 2009 with the agency’s inspector general and the U.S. Office of Special Counsel.
Both of those investigations were dropped after VA administrators said the appointment cancellations were allowed by policy, and no veteran was denied necessary care.