Some local veterans and their families said they find it hard to believe the Tucson VA has reduced wait times as much as claimed.
“They can’t be accurate. No way,” said Tucson resident Mary Marvella, who said her husband has been waiting since August for an appointment with a neurologist at the Southern Arizona VA Health Care System on South Sixth Avenue.
“I care a great deal about this man. For him not to get the care that he needs to, that sends me ballistic. That is not supposed to happen,” said Marvella, a registered nurse who does in-home care.
The Tucson VA shared its latest wait-time figures after a Nov. 9 federal Office of Inspector General report substantiated a whistleblower’s allegations about wait-time manipulation at the Tucson VA.
The allegations dated to 2014, and VA officials told the Star last week that the fraud is no longer happening and that patient wait-times have improved.
In October, wait times for primary-care appointments averaged just over four days; specialty care wait times were 5.6 days and mental-health appointment wait times were 2.2 days, the latest Tucson VA data show.
Marvella’s husband, Charlie Hill, said he took a hard fall out of bed in January, which left him bleeding from the head. As the months passed, Hill and his wife noticed his memory problems were worsening.
“I can remember a song published 40 years ago — I can remember every word — but I forget what happened Saturday,” said Hill, 68, who served in the Navy in the early 1970s. “I don’t know if that’s just my age, I don’t know if it’s from the fall.”
He’s been trying to get a neurology consultation recommended by his nurse, but he hasn’t been able to even get on the neurologist’s schedule, he said.
“I know they’re busy with thousands of patients, but it shouldn’t take this long,” Hill said. “They say, ‘We’re working on it, we’re working on it,’ and nothing happens.”
While the vast majority of local veterans are getting care in a timely manner, about 3.5 percent of patients aren’t able to get in at the Tucson VA or its community clinics in less than 30 days, said Tucson VA spokesman Steve Sample.
“We’re doing everything we can to try to improve access,” he said.
REFORMS STILL NEEDED
While VA hospitals are under more scrutiny than ever before, the massive system is still plagued by systemic problems and is in need of reform, said Matt Dobson, Arizona state director for Concerned Veterans for America.
Major reforms and high-level terminations will be necessary before the VA can move on from issues like wait-time manipulation, which in some cases earned doctors bonus payments, Dobson said.
“Show me who they fired that’s responsible for it,” he said. “Until the VA has to compete with private health care, they are just going to do whatever they want.”
A whistleblower who spoke with the Star, Diane Suter, said that in 2014 her nurse manager at a Tucson VA primary-care clinic instructed her to falsify wait times in the electronic scheduling system in order to help doctors get bonuses. Suter said she suffered retaliation and a hostile work environment after she objected to the practices. In its Nov. 9 report, the Office of the Inspector General substantiated much of what Suter reported and recommended disciplinary action for those who encouraged wait-time manipulation.
But Suter said her nurse manager is still working at the VA.
Tucson VA spokesman Luke Johnson said a new administrative investigative board will determine what personnel actions are required in light of the report.
Dobson highlighted federal legislation he said would improve the system by allowing veterans to use VA funds for private health care.
Veterans can currently seek care in the community if their wait time at the VA is going to be more than 30 days. But the current process is cumbersome and coordinated through the VA system, Dobson said. Private doctors who participate sometimes wait six to nine months to get paid by the VA, he said. The new “veterans choice” legislation would streamline the process and put the patient in control, Dobson said.
“It would make the money follow the veteran, instead of giving the money to the VA and letting the VA decide where to spend it,” he said.
Another bill, the Veterans Accountability Act, would better protect whistleblowers and make it easier to fire VA employees for misconduct, with a expedited timeframe for the fired employee to appeal, Dobson said.
A competing bill backed by the Department of Veterans Affairs is the Veterans First Act, which Concerned Veterans for America considers watered down.
Jeff Sladek, president of the VA union in Southern Arizona, said the VA is already able to discipline and terminate employees for misconduct.
“The system we have right now works, and I’m not at all certain why they think it needs to be changed,” he said. “The issue with the VA is always about money. If we’re given an adequate budget, we are quite capable of taking care of all the needs of the veterans that we serve.”
The president’s budget for fiscal year 2017 includes $182 billion for Veterans Affairs.
Dobson said his organization had heard more about problems at the Phoenix VA — at the center of a wait-time fraud scandal in 2014 — but he wasn’t shocked by revelations about wait-time manipulation in Tucson.
“It’s not too surprising when you look at the cultural problems,” he said. “This has happened at pretty much every VA facility over the last few years. It’s not a resource problem.”
Tucson veteran Michael Hood, 45, said he’s been frustrated by wait times at the Tucson VA. Hood underwent surgery in September to fix a screw in his knee that had repaired an ACL tear but was starting to come out. The private doctor who performed the surgery wasn’t able to remove the screw because it was deeply enmeshed in the bone; removal would require reconstruction of his knee and ACL, Hood said.
To get that surgery done, Hood said he must first see his primary-care physician at the Tucson VA to get approval.
In October, the VA scheduler said the soonest he could get an appointment is January 2017, Hood said.
Hood, a veteran of the Gulf War, said he knows some veterans have more urgent needs than his. But the VA needs to be held accountable for its weaknesses, he said.
“It just doesn’t make sense for me to have to wait three months to get an appointment with my primary,” he said. “It’s unacceptable.”