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VA Investigates Improper Wait List Used For Vets’ Mental Health Care

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VA Investigates Improper Wait List Used For Vets’ Mental Health Care

An investigation by the Department of Veterans Affairs revealed staffers at a Denver-area VA hospital used an ineffective wait list to track mental health care services. This practice was similar to other VA facilities across America.

Last month, 9Wants to Know reported that staff at the Flagship Sleep Lab at Colorado VA Medical Center in Denver kept a secret wait list with 500 names of veterans seeking care for sleep disorders such as insomnia or sleep apnea. Since then, the agency has acknowledged this list existed and ordered its removal from system.

An investigation report by the VA’s Office of Inspector General has confirmed the whistleblower claim and raised questions about its ability to uncover other violations. To date, these reports have only been released to congressional leaders and media.

Whistleblowers claim the unauthorized wait lists violated VA policy, which requires first-time patients to be seen within 14 days of their preferred date. Furthermore, veterans must schedule ongoing appointments within 30 days of their preferred start date (VA, 2015b).

One former employee complained that waitlists concealed how long it takes for veterans to receive treatment and made mental health services appear more scarce than they actually were. To address this, Republican Sens. Ron Johnson from Wisconsin and Cory Gardner from Colorado requested an investigation be launched into this matter, with requests that it include other VA sites in their states as well.

According to the report, at least seven VA medical centers around the country had schedulers who used the next available date as their desired one, effectively eliminating wait times. In two instances, managers were instructing staff members to do this.

For the VA, managing patient wait times has become an urgent priority. On average, six percent of their mental health patients wait more than 30 days before being seen. Following the Phoenix scandal, VA officials have prioritized getting more veterans into care as soon as possible.

The GAO has warned that veterans may miss out on essential healthcare due to wait-time issues. It notes that the longer veterans remain unable to access care, the lower their likelihood is of returning to the VA for follow-up.

Brian Smothers, a former employee in the VA’s Post Traumatic Stress Disorder clinical support team in Denver, claimed that VA facilities used an illegal wait list from 2012 until September 2015. This allegedly concealed how long it takes veterans to receive treatment and made mental health services appear less available. Smothers told 9Wants to Know he was subjected to retaliation and ultimately had no choice but to leave his job.

Mark Roff, a VA spokesman in Denver, described the report as an “outstanding piece of investigative work.” He did not specify whether any staffers had been disciplined for the scheduling irregularities. Nonetheless, he added, the VA has conducted external reviews and is satisfied with their conclusions.

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