More than 2,900 veterans are caught up in bureaucracy hell at the Shreveport VA hospital, waiting to see non-VA doctors promised under the Veterans Choice Program that was created to alleviate appointment wait-times, a whistle-blower says.
It’s been three years since clinical social worker Shea Wilkes revealed a secret wait-list with 2,700 veterans, including 37 who died, languishing for appointments at Overton Brooks VA Medical Center in Shreveport, La. Now, he says he’s discovered a new kind of wait-list – the backlog of 2,900 waiting to see an outside doctor – and has written to President Trump pleading for help because “some will die.”
The fallout from his Sept. 17 letter has created a “s--- storm up and down the VA,” Wilkes told Fox News. “The leaders at the hospital have been working non-stop trying to get the numbers down.”
As the medical center works to address the problem, a VA spokeswoman told Fox News that veterans requiring "urgent care" will still get "priority appointments."
The Veterans Choice Program was created by Congress in 2014 to give veterans speedy access to appointments if they live 40 miles from a VA facility or can’t get in to see a doctor within the mandated 30-day consultation window. However, the program has had problems and veterans continue to wait.
In a bid to improve the situation, Trump on Aug. 12 signed the VA Choice and Quality Employment Act of 2017, which propped up the beleaguered choice program with an infusion of $2.1 billion and gave the VA greater flexibility in hiring and training employees.
'Scheduling manipulations and secret wait lists for care in the VA have not been corrected.'
But the program has had little impact on Overton Brooks, where wait-times for non-VA appointments date back to the end of 2016. The VA requires a referral to see an outside doctor and the process is cumbersome – a request goes back and forth several times between the VA and Tri-West, the program administrator. Part of the chain requires someone to send Tri-West the veteran’s medical history and no one is assigned to that job, Wilkes said.
So patients wait.
“No one knows what in the hell they are doing,” he said. “‘Choice’ is not really a choice. The VA generates your choice.”
In his letter to Trump, Wilkes wrote: “Scheduling manipulations and secret wait lists for care in the VA have not been corrected, they have simply become actual wait lists for non-VA care…Those responsible for these mistakes are not held accountable and their careers continue to progress with little or no accountability. The problems are hidden from the VA’s Washington leadership.”
Wilkes also told Trump he didn’t want to ask the VA inspector general for help because he claims he faced retaliation by that agency when he reported the first secret wait-list in 2014. The IG began a criminal investigation into Wilkes for violating HIPAA laws, but the Office of Special Counsel gave Wilkes whistle-blower protection and slammed the IG in a presidential memo for investigating a “straw man” instead of the complaints he raised.
The Trump letter nevertheless was forwarded to the IG after Wilkes gave a copy to the newly created VA Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection. From there, it spread throughout the VA.
This time, his complaint took a surprising turn. Two of Overton Brooks’ top managers called Wilkes into a meeting -- but it wasn’t to chastise him.
“For the first time ever, they didn’t hem and haw or try to deny it,” Wilkes said. “They went through my letter talking about how they were going to fix it. It was pretty shocking. They told me what they had done so far and what they were doing in the future.”
Wilkes was told that dozens of employees, including managers, worked overtime on the weekend trying to help the veterans on the list.
The VA declined several requests by Fox News to comment on why Overton Brooks had this latest wait-list and why the VA requires numerous layers of approval to create each appointment. Instead, spokeswoman Jessica Jacobsen stated, “Improving patient access to care is a priority for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). And while there are pending Care in the Community appointments for some Shreveport-area Veterans, Veterans requiring urgent care receive priority appointments.”