For the Department of Veterans Affairs, scandal isn't over yet

The VA is embroiled in renewed allegations that it deliberately mismanaged patients' schedules in at least seven states.

Juan Carlos Llorca/AP/File
David and Marianne Trujillo exit the Veterans Affairs facility in El Paso, Texas. An internal Department of Veterans Affairs investigation found that schedulers in Texas routinely misreported when patients sought care, making it impossible to track delays.

The Department of Veterans Affairs gets a pretty bad rap.

Bosses at VA facilities in more than seven states were instructed to falsify their patients' wait times, according to a USA Today analysis. In some cases, wait times were "zeroed out." In others, they were deliberately adjusted to make it appear that the facility was making wait times shorter. Some strategies went on for just a few years; others, a decade.

The scandal is the latest to plague the VA, which has been beleaguered by allegations of mismanagement and related poor practices in recent years. In March, the acting chief of the Veterans Benefits Administration was suspended for 15 days without pay after it came to light that two of his subordinates had moved other employees around in order to keep their own high salaries but do less work. In 2014, a report from Sen. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma alleged that more than 1,000 veterans may have died in the past decade because of high appointment wait times, budgeting issues, and a lack of accountability and oversight.

VA supervisors under pressure to shorten appointment wait times directed scheduling staff at 40 facilities to manipulate records, according to the USA Today report, which is based on data requested from the VA under the Freedom of Information Act. In some cases, employees kept lists of waiting veterans off the official system. 

VA prescriptions may have also contributed to the opioid-addiction epidemic among veterans. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that prescription drug addiction is much higher among military personnel than it is in the general population, and has been on the rise since 2008. Of those drugs abused, most are primarily opioid pain medications.

As the Monitor's Lucy Schouten reported in March:

Overbooked doctors in the Veterans Affairs system have adopted a culture of using opioids as a "quick fix" for a variety of problems, including the emotional effects of war that are actually exacerbated by the drugs. Opioid prescription was the VA's sole strategy for managing chronic pain until several years ago, and such prescriptions increased by 270 percent over 12 years, the Center for Investigative reporting found in 2013.

Still, 89 percent of veterans say they're satisfied with their VA scheduling experience, David Shulkin, the VA's undersecretary of health, told USA Today.

"It's how I know we're heading in the right direction," he said, announcing that the VA would launch a new "declaration of access" to help veterans receive prompt care. 

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