VA tight-lipped about investigation targets

The Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General isn’t going to identify all the hospitals it’s investigating for recently well-publicized problems with waiting times and record falsification to mask those problems until a written report in August, an OIG spokeswoman told the Mirror Friday.

But comments made after a recent visit by an accreditation agency, the lack of feedback from an OIG review and a good waiting time record seem to indicate that the Van Zandt VA Medical Center in Altoona isn’t implicated in

the national scandal, officials said.

The Joint Commission accreditation agency conducted its once-every-three-year visit this week, and evaluators – aware of the national publicity – questioned patients about wait times and heard favorable comments, according to Van Zandt spokeswoman Andrea Young.

“One of the surveyors in a closing session mentioned she had asked a lot of the vets if they had issues,” Young said. “[She said] none had concerns.”

On May 14, OIG inspectors reviewed wait time issues at Van Zandt – like it is doing at every VA hospital, according to Young – and “during their out-brief, no major concerns were addressed regarding scheduling practices,” said David Cowgill, spokesman for VA health care in the Pittsburgh region.

The indicators from the visits jibe with the situation at Van Zandt, according to Young.

“At this point, we have no issues with backlogs or waiting times,” she said.

The national VA goal is for patients to be seen within 14 days, Young said.

If a clerk can’t set an appointment that is within 90 days of a patient’s call, she puts the patient on an “electronic waiting list” – the only permissible list for patients waiting to be scheduled for an appointment, Young said.

Every day, the staff reviews that list and tries to work patients onto the appointments list, as patients cancel or practitioners become available in other ways, Young said.

“It’s not an easy thing sometimes,” Young said of the clerks’ job.

Ultimately, it’s the responsibility of hospital leadership to manage the list issues, which can occur if a doctor is on extended sick leave or on maternity leave, Young said.

If a serious backlog threatens, the hospital may send patients out on a “fee basis,” for care in the regular community health system, said Young and Tim Susengill, a part-time service officer at Van Zandt.

“When it starts to blow up a little, the fee basis system is used,” Susengill said. “They farm out the work.”

Those fee cases are almost always for specialty services, rather than primary care, Young said.

Frank Shoaf, a local veteran who has corresponded with the Mirror on Van Zandt previously, said he hasn’t “heard anything or seen anything” to indicate that Van Zandt is implicated in the scandal.

“[But] we continually seek out ways to improve,” Cowgill said. “[We] will move forward with recommendations that might come as a result of the national audit report.”

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.