New evidence that veterans hospitals manipulated wait lists underscores the deep problems in the entire system, including in the Tampa Bay area. The Veterans Affairs Department wasn't just keeping secret lists of patients waiting for appointments. It relied on a method for reducing established waiting lists that did not involve getting treatment faster for more veterans. Instead of providing quicker care, it changed the rules to reduce the number of names on the list. It's time to end the games and invest whatever it takes to get veterans the prompt care they deserve.
Here's how the wait list works: When the VA adopted a computer scheduling system in 2002, it gave priority treatment to veterans with severe medical disabilities who had been waiting for more than 30 days for an appointment. These veterans were identified and placed on a list so they could receive faster care. But in 2010, VA hospitals were allowed to lengthen the wait list minimum from 30 days to 120, effectively cutting thousands of veterans from the list, according to a Tampa Bay Times review of records and interviews. The time frame is now 90 days.
The biggest impact of this change was that the VA appeared to reduce the waiting lists. The fewer veterans waiting for care, the more efficient and accessible the agency looked. Yet when veterans are in chronic pain from service-related injuries, 30 days to wait for treatment is difficult. And 120 days or more is unimaginable.
These problems were found locally. At the James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa, the waiting list dropped from 4,981 veterans to 1,800 after the hospital started cutting patients from the list, according to the Times review. And at the C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center in Seminole, the wait list dropped from 1,408 in December 2010 to 269 in April 2010. Last month, the VA's inspector general found the wait list was 173 in Tampa and 103 in Seminole.
The VA has been primarily blaming individual employees or hospitals for making their performances look better by keeping different sets of lists of patients awaiting care. But the time frame change was sanctioned by VA officials, suggesting that those at the top knew there was a serious service problem all along.
Regardless of the intentions of the VA's leadership, one thing is clear: The government needs to provide the resources needed to ensure that veterans receive timely, high-quality care. Secret wait lists need to be thrown out and replaced with a system that is transparent, efficient — and cuts waiting times with real service instead of new rules.