Veterans Affairs IG Failed to Fully Investigate Allegations of Data Manipulation

Office of Special Counsel says VA watchdog didn’t thoroughly explore complaints of wrongdoing related to patient scheduling.

The Office of Inspector General at the Veterans Affairs Department failed to thoroughly investigate whistleblower allegations at Texas VA hospitals and clinics, the Office of Special Counsel said this week.

In letters to Congress and the White House, the independent investigative agency said that in three cases involving alleged manipulation of patient scheduling data, the department’s IG “failed to appropriately address the whistleblowers’ allegations.” It found the IG’s findings “deficient and unreasonable.”

In one case, Phillip Turner, a VA medical support assistant, reported that VA staff at medical facilities in San Antonio and Austin were directed to “zero out” patient wait times for appointments, which could have negatively affected patient health, the OSC said in a release. The VA substantiated that systemic improper scheduling was occurring, but did not address whether improper scheduling may have endangered public health and safety.

In two other cases, the IG did not substantiate the whistleblower’s allegations but neglected other aspects of the cases, the special counsel said.

In the case of Virgie Hardeman, a whistleblower from the VA medical center in Temple, Texas, who alleged scheduling manipulation at her medical center and at locations across the Central Texas Veterans Healthcare System, VA did not substantiate the charge. However, the OIG’s investigation failed to address her allegation that the VA categorized hundreds of requests for fee-basis consults for non-VA care as “scheduled” or “complete,” even though the VA did not actually complete them, OSC said.

In the third case, an anonymous whistleblower at the Temple center alleged that a senior staff member inappropriately canceled and rescheduled radiology consults in order to shorten patient wait times and directed others to do likewise. Though the inspector general did not substantiate the whistleblower’s allegations, its investigation failed to fully address all of the allegations that OSC referred and also failed to reconcile seemingly contradictory information.

In response to OSC’s concerns, the department said it will examine and improve its processes for investigating OSC whistleblower disclosure referrals and in pending cases, will consult with the OIG and ensure that investigations address all allegations referred by OSC. “The VA also restated its intent to facilitate greater communication between its investigative teams and OSC,” the release said.

“These employees raised important concerns about access to care issues within their hospitals, and I applaud their efforts to improve care for veterans,” said Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner. “While these investigations failed to fully address the serious disclosures concerning the health and safety of our veterans, I am encouraged by the VA’s commitment to improve its investigative processes moving forward.”