Investigation: Minnesota Veterans Waiting For VA Care

Some 13% of schedulers at 216 VA health facilities said they were instructed in how to falsify the wait times they reported to VA headquarters.

Story by Rick Kupchella's

Military veterans seeking care through the Minneapolis VA waited an average of 28 days to be seen. In St. Cloud, veterans waited 24 Days.

An investigation into VA wait times across the country by USA Today found that only about a third of new patients in Minneapolis, St. Cloud and Sioux Falls got in to see a health care provider within the VAs own 14-day target period for care.

Wait times in Fargo were better, with just over 50 percent of new patients getting appointments within the two-week period.

USA Today obtained federal Department of Veterans Affairs data, which show the system failed to treat three out of five veterans within its 14-day target period for care, USA Today reports.

But as bad as those numbers are, greater numbers of patients may have been kept waiting, according to an audit released last week that shows rampant fraud in keeping official appointment records.

Some 13% of schedulers at 216 VA health facilities said they were instructed in how to falsify the wait times they reported to VA headquarters. At least one instance of false scheduling occurred at 64% of the facilities, the audit showed. Those reported numbers, made available through a Freedom of Information Act request, showed that even without the fraud, patients were kept waiting.

In the six-month period ending March 31, the VA’s 150 hospitals and 820 outpatient clinics failed to treat more than 200,000 veterans who came in for first-time primary care appointments in 14 days.

Minneapolis VA spokesperson Ralph Heussner told KARE 11 the entire VA system is working to get better:

“VA is initiating a coordinated, system-wide initiative to accelerate care to veterans, called the Accelerating Care Initiative. VA health care facilities are systematically reviewing clinic capacity in an effort to maximize our ability to provide Veterans medical appointments when, and in the manner they want them.”

Darwin Goodspeed, VA director in Sioux Falls, told the Argus Leader the VA hospital faces similar challenges to other health care facilities.

“When you’re looking at the aggregate of all health care that people are receiving, waiting 25 days for a hip replacement or to get in for some complicated surgery … mixed in with some of those things like you’re coming in for an earache or a sore throat or just to see your primary care provider, I’m very happy with the report,” he says.

Ken Teunissen, 65, past commander of American Legion Post 15, does not think Sioux Falls has the problem discussed nationally. He uses the system as an Army veteran who was wounded in combat in South Vietnam in 1970.

“I have shrapnel in my leg yet today from a grenade. It was too close to the bone to dig out, so they left it in,” he told the paper. “I haven’t heard of any complaints of long waiting. I personally have had no problems. If I need attention, within a week I’m in,” he says.

The VAs own numbers paint a less rosy picture of the barriers military veterans face when seeking health services. From USA Today:

Only 19 of the VA’s 140 health care facilities reported average wait times within the administration’s target range. Some—in Richmond, Va., Columbia, S.C., and Hampton, Va.—said fewer than 20% of new patients got in to see a doctor within that 14-day time frame.

The VA has confirmed that 42 facilities are under investigation for having falsified their wait records.

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned Friday after turning over to President Obama results from the audit that showed widespread falsification of appointment records. Shinseki acknowledged that the tough, 14-day wait time standard may have led scores of schedulers to manipulate records. He ordered that the 14-day standard no longer be linked with performance bonuses and salary increases.

Minnesota VA statistics, from the report:

Total New Patients: 4238
New Patients within 14 days 34%
Average New Patient Wait: 28 Days

St. Cloud
Total New Patients: 1493
New Patients within 14 days 36%
Average New Patient Wait: 24 Days

Total New Patients: 1654
New Patients within 14 days 51%
Average New Patient Wait: 17.9 Days

Sioux Falls
Total New Patients: 1189
New Patients within 14 days 31%
Average New Patient Wait: 25.5 Days