AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A retired Department of Veterans Affairs doctor has alleged that efforts to meet national performance measures hid potentially life-threatening delays for patients seeking care at an Austin VA clinic.
The claims by Dr. Joseph L. Spann are similar to ones made against VA hospitals in Phoenix and other parts of the country. In Phoenix, a former clinic director alleges that up to 40 veterans might have died while awaiting for treatment and that a secret waiting list hid lengthy delays.
Spann alleges that the chief of radiology at a VA medical center in Temple — located north of Austin — regularly asked doctors to change their requested date for ultrasounds, MRIs and CT scans to hide long backlogs for tests required before life-saving treatment can begin, the Austin American-Statesman reported (http://bit.ly/1iXW8Ka ) Thursday.
"I cannot categorically say that I ever saw a patient die from such manipulated scheduling, but I did see several cancer patients have their possible surgery or chemotherapy treatments delayed awaiting the required radiology tests," Spann wrote in a letter to the VA's Office of Inspector General, which is investigating scheduling manipulation claims in San Antonio.
According to U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, at least one Austin veteran has died while awaiting chemotherapy for laryngeal cancer.
During a Senate hearing Thursday in Washington, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said any adverse event for a veteran "within our care is one too many."
Shinseki has ordered an audit of VA facilities nationwide.
"If allegations about manipulation of appointment scheduling are true, they are completely unacceptable — to veterans, to me and to our dedicated VA employees," Shinseki said.
Spann said the requests to manipulate appointment dates for the Austin VA clinic would increase depending on the backlog of radiological tests.
Spann, who retired in January after 17 years at the Austin clinic, said the focus on performance targets over care took a toll on his fellow physicians.
"I have a lot of friends over there who are working their tails off," Spann told the newspaper. "I retired early because I couldn't stand the deceit. . The incentive system, the bonuses, doing more with less got out of hand."
Central Texas VA officials have admitted improper scheduling practices, but they told the newspaper last week that it was a "training issue" that top executives weren't aware of until recently. Officials say a series of training sessions have been held for scheduling clerks in hopes of ending the practice.
Information from: Austin American-Statesman, http://www.statesman.com