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VA Report: Vet Attempted Suicide Waiting For Mental Health Care In San Diego

Photo by Kris Arciaga

Ray Deal, deputy chief for Health Administration at the VA San Diego, explains a recent audit which accuses the local VA of forging wait times for mental health patients, April 1, 2016.

A new report from the inspector general for Veterans Affairs accuses staffers at the VA San Diego of falsifying the time it took veterans to see a mental health specialist in 2014. Investigators found one veteran attempted suicide after his doctor canceled several appointments.

The report released last week said the unnamed veteran’s provider canceled four appointments in a row. The local VA concedes the report is true.

“We rescheduled him — that got canceled. Rescheduled him — that got canceled,” said Ray A. Deal, deputy chief for health administration at VA San Diego. “But typically, if a provider calls in sick, we contact all the patients, let them know what’s going on and reschedule them for the next available appointment, get them in as early as we can. It’s just unfortunate what happened with this guy.”

Photo by Kris Arciaga

The exterior of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in La Jolla, April 1, 2016.

Ultimately, the report said, the veteran did not get his appointment until two months after the VA learned that he had attempted suicide. The VA San Diego began making changes after its own internal investigation in 2014.

Auditors for the VA inspector general also found clerks were falsifying wait times to make it appear veterans had little or no wait time. The auditors pointed to emails from a supervisor telling a group of employees to “zero out” wait times for veterans who did not want to change their appointments. The aim was to keep wait times under a 14-day standard.

The issues at the local VA mirror allegations directed at the VA Phoenix and other VAs around the country in 2014. VA staffers in those offices were accused of covering up patient backlogs. The allegations touched off a series of congressional reforms. The San Diego report is one of 70 audits covering the same time period that are now being released.

Deal wouldn’t say if any staffers at VA San Diego was fired because of the practices cited in the report. He said seven employees, including a supervisor, no longer schedule mental-health appointments at VA San Diego because of changes put in place in response to the report. The VA has also limited access to scheduling information.

Nearly two years after the VA uncovered the issues, San Diego veterans still have one of the longest wait times in the country to see a mental health provider. There have been questions raised about how the VA calculates wait times. Critics suggest wait times may actually be longer than what the VA reports. Even so, the VA’s most recent survey of pending appointments showed that in March, veterans in San Diego waited 13.49 days beyond their preferred date for an appointment with a mental health provider. The wait time is the longest for any VA system in the country. The national wait time averaged 4.25 days.

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