VA clinic employee on leave after e-mail about manipulating appointments
By Drew Griffin, Scott Bronstein, Nelli Black and Ray Sanchez, CNN
updated 10:49 AM EDT, Fri May 23, 2014
NEW: Whistleblower tells CNN the e-mail outlined ways to manipulate the system
VA chief acts after e-mail discussed "gaming" appointments
House committee chief criticizes VA for handling of scandal
CNN exclusively reported veterans dying while on wait list in Phoenix, Arizona
(CNN) -- A growing scandal over the manipulation of health care appointments resulted in an employee at a Wyoming clinic of the Department of Veterans Affairs being placed on administrative leave, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said Friday.
An e-mail allegedly written by an employee in Cheyenne, obtained by CNN, says: "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. Let me know if this doesn't make sense."
The Navy Chief Hospital Corpsman who says she supplied the e-mail to investigators told CNN in an exclusive interview that employees were told to "game the system because it made Cheyenne look good." CNN confirmed with investigators that she was the source of the e-mail.
The e-mail outlined ways employees could manipulate the system to hide the fact that veterans had to wait months for appointments, said Lisa Lee, a scheduler at the VA clinic in Fort Collins, Colorado, which is managed by the Wyoming clinic.
"We were sat down by our supervisor ... and he showed us exactly how to schedule so it looked like it was within that 14-day period," Lee told CNN. "They would keep track of schedulers who were complying and getting 100 percent of that 14 day(s) and those of us who were not."
The VA's official policy is that all patients should be able to see a doctor, dentist or some other medical professional within 14 days of their requested/preferred date. Any wait longer than two weeks is supposed to documented. But many veterans end up waiting longer, and the delays are never reported, veterans and their advocates say.
Shinseki released a statement saying he has ordered an investigation by the inspector general, and that the employee be removed immediately from patient care responsibilities and placed on leave.
"VA takes any allegations about patient care or employee misconduct very seriously," Shinseki said. "If true, the behavior outlined in the email is unacceptable."
Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, which subpoenaed Shinseki to testify next week, said in a statement that "the VA's reaction to the latest development in its delays in care scandal is faux outrage at its finest."
"Since last year, VA officials have known about intentional efforts to falsify patient wait time data at the Fort Collins, Colo., Community-Based Outpatient Clinic, which is part of the Cheyenne VA Medical Center," Miller said in the statement. "In fact, according to a Dec. 2013 VA Office of Medical Inspector report, clerks at the Fort Collins clinic were actually taught how to cook the books. Yet until today, department officials had not taken any steps whatsoever to discipline any employees or request an independent investigation -- nor did they plan to do so."
Miller said Shinseki's actions Friday appear "to be more of a knee-jerk reaction to tough media questions than anything else. If this is what it takes for VA leaders to do the right thing, you can't help but question how they operate when they think no one is paying attention."
The latest allegation comes as the federal department defends itself against claims of potentially deadly delays at other facilities throughout the nation, including claims of a secret wait list in Phoenix, which was first reported by CNN.
An new interim director, Steve Young, will take over the Phoenix VA Health Care system on Monday, the department announced Friday. He takes over an embattled system responsible for 85,000 veterans and an operating budget of about $500 million.
On Thursday, Phoenix VA Director Sharon Helman, Associate Director Lance Robinson and a third employee, who was not identified, were placed on leave amid allegations of a secret waiting list and claims that more than 40 veterans died waiting for care.
The American Legion, the nation's largest veterans organization, and another group, Concerned Veterans for America, have called for Shinseki's resignation.
Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, told CNN on Friday that if the mounting accusations are true, "people should go to jail." He spoke before news broke of the Wyoming clinic e-mail.
McCain's comments came the same day that he appeared at a Phoenix town hall meeting in which a procession of veterans and their families criticized what they described as widespread delays and mismanagement within the national health care system designed for America's veterans.
"If it is what it appears to be, this isn't just resignations, this is violations of the law," McCain told CNN's Jake Tapper. "People should go to jail."
The former POW said, "Not surprisingly ... this is spreading .... and we need to hold people accountable."
McCain told the town hall meeting that Shinseki called him to say he had ordered a "face-to-face audit" at all VA clinics but wanted to wait for an VA inspector general's report before revealing his findings.
"My friends, an inspector general's report can take months. I told him we cannot wait a day, much less months, before there is a report," McCain said amid applause.
Shinseki ordered the audit Thursday. The same day, the House Veterans' Affairs Committee subpoenaed him.
The subpoena will cover e-mails that allegedly discussed the destruction of a secret list, first reported by CNN, of veterans waiting for care at a Phoenix VA hospital.
Attention on the secretary follows months of CNN exclusive reporting about U.S. veterans who have died while they waited for treatment at VA hospitals.
CNN has submitted numerous requests for an interview with Shinseki; the secretary has refused them all.
On Thursday, a VA scheduler in San Antonio, said clerks scheduling medical appointments for veterans were "cooking the books" at their bosses' behest to hide the fact some had to wait weeks, if not months, for appointments.
The Office of Inspector General confirmed to CNN that it has staff investigators on the ground in San Antonio looking into the allegations.