- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 21, 2014

President Obama’s transition team was warned in 2008 that repeated audits showed the Veterans Affairs Department was misreporting wait times for medical treatment, including one audit revealing delays nearly 10 times worse than the department was officially acknowledging.

The situation was so bad that the inspector general said it stopped trying to police the issue until the VA could prove its information was accurate — raising a red flag for the transition team, according to documents obtained by The Washington Times.

The documents, obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request, show the problem extended back to at least the middle of the Bush administration but remained unresolved when Mr. Obama won election in 2008, and the VA was unable to say this week whether it ever took any steps to correct the problems.

According to the documents, the VA inspector general told the Obama transition team of three audits dating back to 2005 that revealed significant problems with wait times and scheduling.

One of those audits showed an instance in which the department reported 2,900 veterans waited more than a month for medical appointments. The actual figure was closer to 28,000 veterans, according to the auditors.

“Through a series of audits, the OIG has repeatedly demonstrated that [the Veterans Health Administration] reported wait times could not be relied upon and the electronic waiting lists were not complete,” the inspector general’s office for the VA told the Obama-Biden transition team.

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Wait times were one factor used to dole out bonuses to VA executives.

The inspector general offered a number of recommendations to try to help the department establish accurate wait times, including calling for testing to gauge the times, and taking steps to ensure “informal waiting lists” weren’t being used. The VA rejected both recommendations in May 2008, when the Bush administration was in office.

VA officials on Wednesday declined to say whether any of those recommendations were implemented.

Instead, they referred questions to the inspector general’s office, which investigates, conducts audits and makes recommendations but does not have the authority to enact the sorts of policy reforms that its auditors sought nearly a decade ago.

VA officials also did not respond to questions about why it has taken the department so long to enact an “action plan” that VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki said last week would provide officials with more accurate data on wait times.

Dozens of VA facilities now face scrutiny over whether employees used “secret lists” to falsify wait times data to cover up long delays faced by veterans, including in Phoenix where as many as 40 veterans reportedly died while waiting for care.

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With the scandal still growing, Mr. Obama held a brief press conference Wednesday to assure veterans he is pushing for quick action — though he said he is still trying to gather the facts.

“What we have to do is find out what exactly happened. We have to find out how can we realistically cut some of these wait times,” the president said. “There has been a large influx of new veterans coming in. We’ve got a population of veterans that is also aging, as part of the baby boom population. And we’ve got to make sure that the scheduling system, the access to the system, that all those things are in sync.”

Congressional Republicans have said Mr. Obama should do more than wait for answers. They called on him to fire VA employees and do more to gain control of the problem.

“Everything is news to the White House. The veterans’ problems are news to the White House until they hear it through the news media,” said Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican. “Somebody needs to be in charge at the White House, and somebody needs to start taking responsibility.”

While not mentioning him by name, the inspector general’s transition memo referenced Dr. Michael Kussman, assistant secretary of health under Mr. Bush, who rejected the recommendations for policing wait times.

Reached by phone Tuesday, Dr. Kussman declined to comment. He said he did not recall responding to the inspector general and declined an offer to be provided a copy of the memo.

In a 2008 memo, Dr. Kussman made no secret about his reaction to the third report in as many years into wait time problems. In a letter to the inspector general, he wrote that the report contained “misleading implications and unfounded innuendo.”

Dr. Kussman questioned the inspector general’s methodology and said some problems are inevitable because schedulers are typically the newest and least-experienced staff. “Given the circumstances, errors are inevitable,” he wrote.

While Dr. Kussman acknowledged “levels of imprecision in our waiting times data,” he added that nobody has been able to identify a more effective way to track and monitor wait times for almost 40 million annual appointments.

The inspector general’s office, in a rare public display reflecting just how contentious the wait time issue had become inside VA, fired back: “We can only conclude that VHA’s stated intention to correct recognize and long-standing problems is not sincere,” the watchdog office noted in a 2008 report.

The inspector general made incoming Obama officials aware of the dispute.

“Since the report in 2005, OIG issued reports in 2007 and 2008 concerning these issues, and both subsequent reports confirmed that problems and causes associated with scheduling, waiting times and [electronic waiting lists] are systemic throughout VHA,” the VA’s office of inspector general wrote in a memo to the Obama-Biden transition team weeks after the 2008 election.

Among those who helped oversee the work of the transition for Veterans Affairs was Maryland Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, now a Democratic gubernatorial candidate.

His campaign did not respond to a phone message Wednesday.

• Jim McElhatton can be reached at jmcelhatton@washingtontimes.com.

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