- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Rather than go through a time-consuming evaluation process, a Veterans Affairs center in Georgia decided to simply close all of its consulting contracts en masse, leaving veterans without access to many specialized doctors and health care workers, a watchdog report found Tuesday.

The program is designed to help rural veterans by sending them to private-sector doctors and medical centers if they can get treatment there quickly. But medical centers must routinely evaluate the private institutions with which they are dealing to ensure good quality of care and fair prices.

Instead of taking the time to conduct the individual evaluations, the medical center in Dublin, Georgia, decided to simply close more than 1,500 contracts in an effort to meet a Veterans Affairs Department deadline on organizing all consultants, said a report by the agency’s internal watchdog, the inspector general.

But almost 650 of the consultants were considered active, meaning veterans needed appointments there.

“Many of those patients still required the requested clinical care,” the inspector general noted.

Although no appointments were directly canceled as a result of the mass closure, VA staff had to start from square one to get veterans the care they needed. After the May 1 deadline — which the hospital passed — staff members went back and re-entered many of the consultants into the program, including all related paperwork and authorization fees.

As of June, 250 patients still needed appointments, investigators said.

The inspector general said employees left little doubt that all the contracts were closed quickly in an effort to pass the looming deadline.

“Several of the staff members we interviewed told us that there was “no way” the facility would meet the May 1 deadline even though staff were working late and on weekends to individually review, update, and close consults,” the investigators said.

The hospital said it has been able to get the proper medical care for nearly all veterans following the closures. VA agency executives said they would look into the matter and decide on appropriate action by September.

• Phillip Swarts can be reached at pswarts@washingtontimes.com.

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