Three Department of Veterans Affairs officials testified before a House panel on Wednesday about the destruction of scheduling records at a Phoenix VA hospital.
The hearing came hours after the VA inspector general’s office released a report saying the department’s health clinics have falsified their records to hide treatment delays, calling the issue a “systemic problem nationwide.”
The White House has described the findings as “troubling,” adding that the VA must address the improper practices “immediately and aggressively.”
Democrats and Republicans showed few, if any, signs of partisanship during the hearing, as virtually every member of the panel expressed outrage over the IG findings and questioned the witnesses about unofficial scheduling records in Phoenix.
Below are a few key takeaways from the hearing, which lasted deep into the night after starting at 7:30 p.m. The witnesses included VA health official Thomas Lynch and two VA congressional liaisons, Joan Mooney and Michael Huff.
An admission of failure
Lynch offered what may be the VA’s first admission of failure related to the scheduling scandal, saying the department’s health clinics became too focused on meeting performance goals.
“Our performance measures have become our goals, not tools to help us understand where we needed to invest resources,” Lynch said.
Whistleblowers have alleged that VA clinics hid treatment delays in part to secure bonuses and salary increases, a claim that Wednesday’s inspector general’s report supported.
Lynch also said the department should have scrutinized its scheduling numbers more carefully, especially after watchdog reports warned of manipulation.
“We were told that the scheduling system was challenged, but we discounted the [inspector general] reports and patient concerns as exceptions, not the rule,” he said. “We could and should have challenged those assumptions.”
Lynch later reiterated that point, saying: “I think to a certain extent we failed to challenge our assumptions — we believed our numbers.”
VA denies “secret list”
The VA has rejected the phrase “secret list” as a descriptor for the unofficial records its clinics created to track patients who experienced treatment delays.
Lynch testified that the list in Phoenix was an “interim work product” that the clinic used while rescheduling patients whose appointments had been canceled. “I think they could easily have been misunderstood as being secret lists,” he said.
A 2010 memo from the VA identified 17 inappropriate scheduling schemes that its clinics used, including faking appointment cancellations and rescheduling them to hide extended treatment delays. The agency warned its medical centers at the time that the practices would “not be tolerated.”
Lynch acknowledged that the VA destroyed the lists between late-2012 and mid- 2013, saying federal guidelines required the action to protect private patient information once it was no longer needed for rebooking.
“It did contain patient identifiable information.”
Lynch also testified that the VA destroyed the lists before the committee requested a preservation order on April 9.
VA lawyers are withholding documents
Miller and Rep. Mike Michaud (D-Maine), the committee’s ranking member, expressed frustration with the VA’s level of compliance with the panel’s May 8 subpoena, approved unanimously, for all documents related to the destruction of “alternate or interim” scheduling records at the Phoenix VA clinic.
The VA has turned over more than 5,500 pages of documents related to the matter, telling the committee on Tuesday that it believes it has satisfied the committee’s request.
But Miller said the department is withholding “at least three relevant communications by claiming attorney-client privilege.”
The chairman at one point questioned Huff about notes he took during a private briefing on the destruction of documents.
Huff said he gave the notes to the VA Office of General Counsel, headed by Will Gunn, a retired Air Force colonel who served as a lawyer in the Air Force’s Judge Advocate General Corps.
Miller asked whether any of the witnesses knew why the VA had not turned over the notes to the committee. Mooney said the office of general counsel is overseeing the subpoena response.
No one from that office was scheduled to testify at the hearing.
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