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A newly released report, prompted by a whistleblower's complaint 20 months ago, concluded that veterans hospital staff members in Little Rock gave the appearance of shorter wait times by manipulating patient data.

Medical support assistants, who help veterans schedule doctor appointments, and several supervisors systematically changed the dates that patients requested to see a doctor in early 2014 and before, according to a report released Tuesday by the inspector general for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

The report did not specify how far into the past its investigation covered, but the whistleblower indicated the practice went back at least to 2011.

Additionally, the report said two supervisors "displayed a lack of candor" during interviews with investigators. VA inspector general special agents made that determination after a review of the supervisors' emails and co-workers' testimonies, the report said.

In response to the inspector general's findings, the Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System, which operates a hospital in Little Rock and another in North Little Rock, restructured many of its scheduling practices. It also took administrative action against the employees identified in the report, spokesman Debby Meece said. Meece declined to say what administrative actions the department took because of privacy concerns, but she said they were "not insignificant."

U.S. Rep. French Hill, R-Ark., denounced the actions of what he called corrupt and incompetent VA employees. He mentioned a bill he co-sponsored, the VA Accountability Act of 2015, which would give the Veterans Affairs secretary the latitude to fire poor-performing employees for cause. The bill passed the U.S. House last year and is in committee in the Senate.

"There is a simple solution to this problem, not just here in Little Rock, but throughout the entire VA system," Hill said in an email through a spokesman. "Those who work at VA and do not act in the best interest of our veterans need to be appropriately disciplined for their actions."

The VA Office of the Inspector General began its Little Rock investigation after a medical support assistant submitted a complaint. The complainant alleged that his supervisor instructed him to incorrectly input the dates for which veterans requested appointments to "zero out" the wait times. VA employees did this by inputting the actual appointment date as the "desired date" without regard for how long a patient waited from the time an appointment was requested, the report said.

Investigators submitted their findings after interviewing 13 employees and reviewing training records, employee emails and scheduling policies.

The VA inspector general's summation of employee interviews indicated that upper-level managers were unaware of the schedule manipulations. Medical support assistants, however, were very aware of the practice, and one told investigators it was a "numbers game" to make the facility look good, according to the report.

When one employee tried to correctly input the patient data, he was reprimanded by a supervisor, according to testimony in the report.

The report was released more than a year-and-a-half after the whistleblower's complaint. A spokesman for the VA inspector general's office did not return phone calls or an email requesting comment Wednesday.

The report was the latest of dozens released in recent weeks by the inspector general after numerous media outlets put the department watchdog under pressure to reveal its findings on similar accusations about VA hospitals around the country.

The VA hospital in Phoenix prompted scrutiny in 2014 after reports that dozens of veterans died while awaiting treatment at the hospital and that workers there manipulated waiting lists to hide that veterans were facing long delays to see doctors.

The scandal prompted the ouster of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. The agency's Phoenix director, Sharon Helman, also lost her job.

A series of government reports in the following months said workers throughout the country falsified wait lists while supervisors looked the other way. While veterans encountered chronic delays, the reports found that managers who falsely appeared to meet on-time goals received bonuses.

In the aftermath, Congress approved a sweeping law to overhaul the VA and appropriated money to make it easier for veterans to get VA-paid private health care. The law also limits the time VA employees have to appeal firings for alleged wrongdoing.

The Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System said its services improved after the inspector general's investigation. The system completed 49,000 more appointments in 2015 than in 2014, and the majority of patients were seen within 30 days of their initial request, according to the department.

Now, the average wait time is about eight days for primary care visits.

U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., applauded the department's recent improvements.

"Our veterans have earned the best quality health care, and they deserve to know that when they go to a VA facility they have access to the services they need. I'm pleased to see that CAVHS has made the necessary changes to comply with VA policy to ensure our veterans receive timely care," Boozman said.

The problems in the Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System were not the first discovered in the state by the inspector general's office after the Phoenix scandal.

A similar problem surfaced in a February 2015 report that found the VA's Regional Benefit Office in Little Rock altered 48 overlooked disability claims to make them appear as if they had just been filed. Some of the claims were more than 2 years old.

The regional benefit office reviews veterans' claims to disability compensation for service-related injuries or illnesses and other benefits.

The VA inspector general determined the claims had been manipulated, but it assigned blame to a Veterans Benefits Administration rule that directed regional offices to alter the dates of claims. That rule came about after Shinseki in 2013 set a goal to have zero backlogged cases by the end of 2015.

President Barack Obama said in November that the backlog had been cut by nearly 90 percent.

Information for this article was contributed by staff members of The Associated Press.

A Section on 03/17/2016

Print Headline: VA staff members altered wait times, inspectors report

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