Tampa Bay Hospitals Join List of VA Facilities Accused of Gaming Performance Data on Appointment Wait Times

BLOGBACK: While VA facilities nationwide struggle to provide timely care to injured or ill veterans, only two percent of veterans receive VA approval for treatment from medical providers outside the VA through a little-known program called ‘Fee Basis.’ The VA budget has more than doubled since 2004 from $64 billion to more than $120 billion in 2011. Any time a veteran is forced to wait more than 14 days to see a VA provider, that veteran should automatically be informed of and offered the Fee Basis Program. The money is there. The VA should use it. Problem solved.

VA Standard for Veterans Awaiting Appointments Hiked From 30 to 120 Days

by William R. Levesque
Tamp Bay Times, 
April 30, 2012

Tampa Bay’s two veterans hospitals have changed a much-watched measure of their performance by increasing from 30 to 120 days the time a patient must go without an appointment before being placed on a waiting list, interviews and documents obtained by the Tampa Bay Times show.

Two VA hospitals in the Tampa Bay region are accused of 'gaming' the way it reports its numbers of veterans placed on waiting lists for treatment. VA denied any wrongdoing.

Critics of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs say the change is part of a wider VA trend of fudging statistics showing how well facilities serve veterans.

The VA denies the charge.

But at James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa, a switch from 30 to 120 days this month left the hospital’s waiting list for outpatient appointments much improved. It dropped from March’s 4,981 patients to 1,800 this month, Haley figures show.

The VA Medical Center at Bay Pines in Seminole increased its waiting list threshold from one to four months in late 2010, earlier than Haley, Bay Pines said.

Bay Pines’ waiting list has trended downward as well since late 2010 because the hospital went to the 120-day time frame, said Bay Pines spokeswoman Faith Belcher. Bay Pines’ list hit 326 in October 2010, climbed to 1,408 in December 2010 and fell steadily most of 2011, VA figures show. This month, Bay Pines has 269 veterans on the waiting list.

Officials at the hospitals, and national VA officials, said the facilities are not violating VA policy, which no longer mandates any specific time frame for placement on waiting lists.

Critics of the VA said the agency has a long history of toying with its performance measures and not quickly scheduling appointments. Earlier this year, the VA inspector general said the VA had overstated how quickly veterans in need of mental health treatment were evaluated. (Haley and Bay Pines figures during the last year show very few patients encountered delays in getting mental health care.)

“This is a typical practice by VA hospitals that are not making their numbers,” said Gordon Erspamer, a California lawyer who has represented several veteran advocacy groups.

If the VA is late providing care, he said, “Then the VA redefines the meaning of late. … It makes things easier to accept more delay. And the VA is largely insulated from any accountability.”

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