VA Bureaucrat: 'We Could Have Moved Forward More Quickly'

May 29, 2014 - 5:02 AM

thomas lynch

Dr. Thomas Lynch, the assistant deputy under secretary for health for clinical operations at the Veterans Health Administration, testifies as the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs hears about allegations of gross mismanagement and misconduct at VA hospitals possibly leading to patient deaths, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 28, 2014. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

(CNSNews.com) - In a testy exchange Wednesday evening, Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.), a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, blasted a government bureaucrat for his failure to do something about the 1,700 veterans who were waiting for primary care appointments at the Phoenix veterans hospital, but who were never placed on an electronic waiting list.

Dr. Thomas Lynch, an assistant deputy under secretary at the Department of Veterans Affairs, told the House committee Wednesday evening that he knew veterans had been left off the electronic waiting list, but he says he was more focused on understanding "the process."

"So you knew about these veterans that were waiting for care, primary care?" Rep. Huelskamp asked Lynch:

"I had identified the number of veterans, and we could have moved forward more quickly," Lynch admitted.

An inspector-general's report released Wednesday said those 1,700 veterans "were and continue to be at risk of being forgotten or lost in Phoenix (Health Care Center's) convoluted scheduling process."

"Did you try to do anything to get care for these veterans -- 1,100 (sic) veterans -- waiting?" Huelskamp asked Lynch.

"Congressman, we identified the processes and we put people on the ground--"

"Yes or no, did you do anything for those 1,100 (1,700) veterans?," Huelskamp interrupted.

"Congressman, I put in place an understanding of the process, which allowed us to--"

"They are still waiting for care. I think that's your answer," Huelskamp snapped.

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki -- after learning about the 1,700 veterans from the inspector-general's report (but not from Lynch) -- said on Thursday he "immediately directed the Veterans Health Administration to contact each of the 1,700 veterans in Phoenix waiting for primary care appointments in order to bring them the care they need and deserve."

Lynch said he became aware of problems in Phoenix on April 9, and he traveled there -- the first of three visits -- on April 17, the Thursday before Easter. "My initial role in Phoenix was to try to get an understanding of what had happened," he told the committee. "The VA's response was led by me while I was in Phoenix."

The inspector-general's report released Wednesday "substantiated serious conditions" at the Phoenix veterans hospital:

"We identified about 1,400 veterans who did not have a primary care appointment but were appropriately included on the Phoenix (Health Care Center's Electronic Waiting List)," the IG report said. "However, we identified an additional 1,700 veterans who were waiting for a primary care appointment but were not on the EWL (Electronic Waiting List). Until that happens, the reported wait time for these veterans has not started.

"Most importantly, these veterans were and continue to be at risk of being forgotten or lost in Phoenix HCS’s convoluted scheduling process. As a result, these veterans may never obtain a requested or required clinical appointment. A direct consequence of not appropriately placing veterans on EWLs is that the Phoenix HCS leadership significantly understated the time new patients waited for their primary care appointment in their FY 2013 performance appraisal accomplishments, which is one of the factors considered for awards and salary increases."

Lynch told the House committee on Wednesday he doesn't believe the Phoenix facility was using "secret" lists to avoid reporting long wait times for patients.

"It is my contention that there were a number of documents... that were working documents used to provide information about patients for addition to the (electronic) waiting list or for rescheduling of patients. I did not think that they were secret lists. I think they could easily have been misunderstood as being secret lists."

Lynch said the only thing that surprised him in the IG report was the number of veterans (1,700) who never made it onto the electronic waiting list.

Here's more of the exchange between Lynch and Rep. Huelskamp:

"So if I understood correctly from the report, and from your testimony, these secret waiting lists could be at every VA facility in the country, is that correct?" Huelskamp asked Lynch.

"Congressman, I don't think they were secret, I think they were --"

"How did you not find it, Dr. Lynch? You were there!," Huelskamp interrupted.

"I did find them, Congressman."

"How many were on the list? You told me you didn't even look at this list," Huelskamp said.

"I told you we didn't document the numbers," Lynch replied. "I told you we were aware -- we were aware of the process."

"You saw the list? Why didn't you report to the press and to Mr. Shinseki and the President of the United States that there were 1,100 veterans waiting for care on that list. Did you tell anybody above you? You waited 35 days -- 35 days -- that you cared for veterans, you said you care about them -- they're waiting on a list, languishing."

"Congressman, I was focused on trying to improve the process--"

"What about the 1,100 (he meant 1,700) veterans -- so you knew about these veterans that were waiting for care, primary care?"

"I had identified the number of veterans, and we could have moved forward more quickly."

"Did you try to do anything to get care for these veterans, 1,100 veterans, waiting. Some of them might have been on the list (of those who) died.

"Congressman, we identified the processes and we put people on the ground--"

"Yes or no, did you do anything for those 1,100 veterans?" Huelskamp interrupted.

"Congressman, I put in place an understanding of the process, which allowed us to--"

"They are still waiting for care. I think that's your answer," Huelskamp concluded.