Alabama rep. says VA official misled her

Medicine and health

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) – A congresswoman on Wednesday complained that she was misled about steps being taken to punish workers who falsified records at Veterans Administration health centers in central Alabama.

Republican Rep. Martha Roby of Montgomery announced over the weekend that three employees involved in falsifying records were terminated. But on Wednesday, she said she learned the information, which came from Central Alabama VA director James Talton, wasn’t correct and that the employees were still working at the VA.

Roby said Talton told her there had been a misunderstanding about what he meant when he said employees were “relieved of their duties.”

A federal report released Monday said more than 57,000 U.S. military veterans have been waiting 90 days or more for their first VA medical appointments. Some 13 percent of schedulers in VA hospitals and outpatient clinics reported being told by supervisors to falsify appointment schedules to make patient waits appear shorter.

Roby said she is upset no one was terminated. “That means the employees responsible for falsifying wait list records are still working at the VA in Alabama,” the congresswoman said Wednesday.

She said Talton apologized for a misunderstanding. “However, the unmistakable tenor of Friday’s conversation and his failure to correct the record after three days of saturating news coverage tell me this wasn’t a misunderstanding at all. I believe I was misled,” she said.

“If a member of Congress can’t get a straight answer from the VA, just think what our veterans go through on a daily basis,” she said.

Talton has made no public comment since the VA released statistics Monday about long waits. A spokeswoman for the central Alabama facilities said he was not immediately available for comment Wednesday. But she confirmed there were no dismissals. Talton sent an email to his staff last week saying the operation is under review by the VA’s inspector general, and Roby said Wednesday that is correct.

The report released Monday also said the Central Alabama Veterans Health Care System had an average wait time for new patients of 75 days. That was the seventh-worst nationally. The average wait time for first-time mental health patients was sixth-worst at 57 days. Other VA facilities in Alabama had shorter wait times.

“The current wait time for new patients is unacceptable and we are taking several actions to improve access,” Central Alabama VA spokeswoman Dorothea McBride said in an email.

She said the VA is making changes, including agreeing to let 500 veterans in the Columbus, Georgia, area see non-VA health care providers, opening up more appointment slots, expanding clinic hours, adding staff, and expanding opportunities for mental health patients to consult with health care providers electronically.

Roby said a breach of trust has occurred with the VA, and that makes it hard to say whether the changes will have an impact. “We just don’t know what’s true,” she said in a phone interview.

Roby said she is pushing for more changes, including using the VA’s Patient-Centered Community Care program in central Alabama. It allows veterans to use non-VA health care providers to obtain services not offered by their local VA or when there are long waits.

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