Talking to veterans about their experiences utilizing the Veterans Affairs Health Care System, it’s apparent their experiences can differ considerably.
Retired Staff Sgt. Denoa Griffin said he has no complaints.
“A few weeks ago, about the time the scandal broke, I got a reminder in the mail to make my annual eye appointment. I called and was able to get an appointment the very next week,” Griffin said of using the Central Texas Veterans Health Care System in Temple. “On the day I went in for my eye appointment, I asked at my assigned clinic if I could be seen on a walk-in basis for knee pain and they saw me within 90 minutes. At that time, they told me I needed to have my annual checkup and made me an appointment for the following week.”
Meanwhile, Jon Atkins, 32, waited last year from June to the end of August to see a neurologist for migraines. The pain was so bad, he said he was bedridden for a month.
“It wasn’t until it finally went away that I got to see the doctor about it,” the veteran said.
Atkins said he’s seen his primary care manager “twice since March of last year even though I’ve had at least 10 clinic appointments in the same time frame.”
VA policy then was for a veteran to be seen within 14 days. Amid this scandal, the wait time was expanded to 30 days.
Griffin, 55, said when he hears the stories coming out about wait times at the VA, he doesn’t feel hesitant to continue to receive care there.
“It does make me more appreciative of the positive experiences I have had at our local VA,” he said.
Last month, whistleblowers began accusing a Phoenix VA facility of altering the desired appointment dates of veterans to ones that masked long wait times.
Currently, there are 29 active cases filed since 2012 within the VA system in Texas being reviewed by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, a federal investigative agency that protects government whistleblowers.
“These include six cases where a VA employee has made an underlying disclosure of wrongdoing (at a VA facility in Texas),” said Nick Schwellenbach, a spokesman for the U.S. Office of Special Counsel.
The other 23 cases involve a VA employee who alleged “prohibited personnel practices,” which includes administrative officials taking action against whistleblowers.
“These cases are in various stages of our review and investigative process,” Schwellenbach said in an email Friday. “Also, the number of active cases we have can vary, even on a day-to-day basis, depending on complaints that are filed and as cases close.”
He said he could not confirm if any employees at the Temple VA hospital filed for whistleblower status because of potential “witch hunts” that could follow.
In a typical referral, the Office of Special Counsel will take a complaint from a whistleblower, find out if the complaint “could be true,” and if so, hand the investigation back to the agency, Schwellenbach said. The VA inspector general investigates the matters with oversight from the Office of Special Counsel.
The first formal documentation of scheduling issues in Temple was a January 2012 report from the VA Inspector General’s Office. An award application from that year states the problem was brought to light in October 2011 and taken care of through training “front-line” employees.
The award application states the training increased correct scheduling from 90 percent to 98 percent in February 2012. Temple’s Olin E. Teague Veterans’ Medical Center took second place in the award for excellence that year, as it did the year prior.
That same month, members of the American Federation of Government Workers from the Fort Hood and Temple chapters visited U.S. Rep. John Carter’s office, and described scheduling issues as an ongoing problem, said Herve Abrams, political and legislative coordinator for AFGE Local 1920 Fort Hood chapter.
“One of those VA employees specifically detailed the irregularities taking place and explained how veterans’ well-being was being negatively affected,” Abrams said. “Delegations of VA employees again brought up the issue, among others, in trips to Carter’s office in Washington, D.C., in February of 2013 and 2014; yet the problems persisted.”
In an email sent Aug. 6, 2012, from AFGE Local 2109 in Temple to Central Texas system leaders, Carter’s deputy chief of staff William Zito and former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, employees outlined the problem and indicated it was not due to untrained frontline employees.
“AFGE Local 2109 has received multiple reports that schedulers are being instructed to enter incorrect desired dates by their supervisors, and many even have to pull an MCAR report daily and ‘fix’ any desired dates that are outside the two-week window.
“Many clinics cannot offer services for months in the future, and yet we are reporting that over 95 percent of our veterans are being seen within ‘two weeks,’” according to the email.
The union asked the VA leaders and Carter’s office to make sure VA employees “follow the rules.”
Out of frustration over no response from Carter, the union leaked the documents to Carter’s Democratic opponent in this November’s election, Army Reserve Capt. Louie Minor.
“Our elected representative to Congress must provide oversight of the federal government. The American Federation of Government Employees did the right thing not once, or twice, but three times to notify John Carter’s office,” Minor said.
“He chose to neglect their concerns and veterans’ care. When a group is ignored, they lose trust in government. This is the direct result of partisanship. This will only increase the divide between the AFGE and John Carter’s office to fix this problem.”
Carter’s office did not provide comment when asked about the D.C. office visits.
To continue forward and correct the issue, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America is asking for the passage of the Department of Veterans Affairs Management Accountability Act of 2014.
“It seems clear this problem is not limited to a few facilities but is rather a pattern of fraud pervasive throughout the VA,” said Jeff Hensley, a Dallas-based leadership fellow with the veterans organization. “It’s also apparent that the VA is unable to police itself since the IG has been aware of this issue for years.
“The administration can start addressing this problem by revamping its accountability and budgeting practices.”
He said they also would like to see the passage of the Senate’s Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, which includes a pilot program on loan repayment for psychiatrists who agree to work for the VA.
“This is particularly important for those veterans whom the VA is failing,” Hensley said.
Jacob Brooks contributed to this report.