Healthcare Business News

Two VA workers placed on leave over scheduling issues

By Rachel Landen
Posted: May 13, 2014 - 6:15 pm ET

Two workers at Durham (N.C.) VA Medical Center were placed on administrative leave Monday following allegations related to scheduling processes that may have violated Veterans Health Administration policies.

The decision to place them on leave, however, is not related to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki's order that scheduling practices at all VA medical centers and community-based outpatient clinics be included in a systemwide audit.

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Shinseki’s decision came on the heels of reports that as many as 40 patients died while waiting for treatment at a Phoenix veterans’ hospital where former employees claim there was a secret waiting list used to conceal delays in treatment. Allegations of delays and falsified documents at other VA facilities have continued to surface. In addition to the North Carolina development, a facility in St. Louis now also reportedly is under investigation.

Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Tuesday called on President Barack Obama to get involved in helping to fix the VA’s delays in care that he said is growing in size and scope each day.

“I respectfully request that you act immediately to establish an independent, bipartisan commission to thoroughly investigate veteran access issues, patient harm and preventable deaths as a result of delays in care across the VA healthcare system,” Miller wrote in a letter (PDF) to the president Tuesday.

The VA issued a statement Monday night saying that a Durham VA employee had “indicated that some employees at that facility may have engaged in inappropriate scheduling practices between 2009 and 2012.”

The two employees in question were placed on leave Monday, pending an audit team’s review this week of the allegations and current scheduling practices at the North Carolina location.

Last week, Shinseki ordered the removal of an employee at Cheyenne (Wyo.) VA Medical Center after learning of an alleged e-mail that contained instructions for “gaming the system.”

The June 2013 e-mail, which appears to have originated with David Newman, a telehealth coordinator at Cheyenne VAMC, tells how to hide delays in treatment and noncompliance with the VA’s 14-day goal for scheduling appointments.

“Yes, it is gaming the system a bit. But you have to know the rules of the game you are playing, and when we exceed the 14-day measure, the front office gets very upset, which doesn’t help us,” a copy of the e-mail, provided by the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said.

The e-mail goes on to suggest getting off the “bad boys list” by canceling an appointment and rescheduling it with a desired date within the 14-day window.

“I immediately requested the independent VA Office of Inspector General conduct a thorough investigation of the actions outlined in the employee’s e-mail,” Shinseki said in a statement released Friday. “I have also directed that the employee be removed immediately from patient care responsibilities and placed on administrative leave.”

But Miller seemed skeptical of the VA’s reaction Friday, calling it “faux outrage at its finest.”

The St. Louis VA Medical Center also is under investigation after its former chief of psychiatry claimed that patients often waited at least one month for care, the Associated Press reported Tuesday.

In a federal whistle-blower complaint filed last year, Dr. Jose Matthews said that psychiatrists at the facility were seeing, on average, six patients a day. They should be seeing at least 12 a day, Matthews said, with him telling the AP that he “could account for only a four-hour workday.”

According to the AP and Marcena Gunter, a spokesperson for the hospital, the complaints concerning delays in mental health treatment are under investigation. The allegations also prompted Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) to pen a letter to Shinseki asking for information on the number of mental health providers at the St. Louis facility, their workload and the timeliness in which patients are seen.

Follow Rachel Landen on Twitter: @MHrlanden

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