- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Obama administration received clear notice more than five years ago that VA medical facilities were reporting inaccurate waiting times and experiencing scheduling failures that threatened to deny veterans timely health care — problems that have turned into a growing scandal.

Veterans Affairs officials warned the Obama-Biden transition team in the weeks after the 2008 presidential election that the department shouldn’t trust the wait times that its facilities were reporting.

“This is not only a data integrity issue in which [Veterans Health Administration] reports unreliable performance data; it affects quality of care by delaying — and potentially denying — deserving veterans timely care,” the officials wrote.

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The briefing materials, obtained by The Washington Times through the Freedom of Information Act, make clear that the problems existed well before Mr. Obama took office, dating back at least to the Bush administration. But the materials raise questions about what actions the department took since 2009 to remedy the problems.

In recent months, reports have surfaced about secret wait lists at facilities across the country and, in the case of a Phoenix VA facility, accusations that officials cooked the books to try to hide long wait times. Some families said veterans died while on a secret wait list at the Phoenix facility.

Last week, Dr. Robert Petzel, undersecretary for health in the Department of Veterans Affairs, resigned. His boss, Secretary Eric K. Shinseki, told Congress he will stay despite growing calls for his resignation.

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Mr. Shinseki, a disabled veteran, has headed the department since the beginning of Mr. Obama’s first term, when the VA report identified many of the problems.

“Should they have known? Absolutely, they should have known,” said Deirdre Parke Holleman, executive director of the Washington office for the Retired Enlisted Association, a veterans group, which has not taken a position on whether Mr. Shinseki should resign. “These are problems that should have been dealt with.”

In particular, the 2008 transition report referred to a VA inspector general recommendation to test the accuracy of reported waiting times.

Such tests, the report noted, could prompt action if results reveal “questionable differences” between the dates shown in medical records and dates in the Veterans Health Administration’s scheduling system. It’s unclear whether that recommendation was adopted because VA officials have not responded to request for comment.

In Phoenix, officials are looking into whether as many as 40 veterans died while waiting for treatment, with “secret wait lists” used to conceal the delays. Speaking in the Republicans’ weekly address over the weekend, Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, said the scandal began in his home state but it has since “gone nationwide.”

“Altogether, similar reports of lengthy waiting lists and other issues have surfaced in at least 10 states,” he said.

Acting VA Inspector General Richard J. Griffin told Congress last week that his office has opened multiple investigations into “reports of manipulated waiting times” in Phoenix as at other facilities.

He said his investigation also aims to find out whether officials in Phoenix purposely left off the names of veterans waiting for care on electronic waiting lists and, if so, whether any veterans died because of the delays in care.

Problems with electronic waiting lists also merited mention in the presidential briefing report.

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