June 9, 2014 Updated: June 9, 2014 at 8:09 pm
An audit on Veterans Affairs health care wait times has triggered a deeper probe of the agency's clinics in Colorado Springs, the VA announced Monday.
At issue is whether workers in Colorado Springs falsified reports to make wait times for health care appear shorter. The VA's inspector general is expected to send investigators to determine whether phony records were created, who ordered it and how many patients might have been impacted.
"In Colorado Springs we had an anonymous complaint from three staff that they had been told to manipulate wait times," said Daniel Warvi, spokesman for VA hospitals and clinics in eastern Colorado.
Warvi said local VA officials know little about the complaint, including which VA sites in Colorado Springs were involved.
The Colorado Springs operation was targeted along with VA facilities in Grand Junction, Wyoming and Montana. Nationwide, 81 VA sites were picked for deeper investigation.
"As a result of these audits, some locations were flagged for further review and investigation," the VA said in a news release. "Any instance of suspected willful misconduct is being reported promptly to the VA Office of Inspector General."
The audit, triggered after a national scandal over veterans dying while waiting for VA care, showed lengthy waits at the agency's operations in eastern Colorado. The audit found that 7 percent of appointments were delayed by more than 30 days. New patients in eastern Colorado waited an average of more than 51 days for specialty care, the audit found - the longest wait time in a five-state region, and two days more than the VA's national average.
The probe in Colorado Springs comes as the VA prepares to open a new clinic on Fillmore Street that's billed as state-of-the-art. It will move some VA operations now spread across three Colorado Springs sites to a single location.
The new clinic, scheduled to open Aug. 18, will accommodate a growing veteran population in Colorado Springs, which is home to five military installations.
Warvi said the impact on wait times is yet to be seen.
"Wait time is going to change daily," he said.
The VA is working nationwide to push veterans off long waiting lists for care, and leaders say they're aiming to get patients to treatment within 14 days and will offer veterans who have faced long waits alternatives for care outside the VA.
Warvi said about 150 veterans in eastern Colorado who have waited more than 90 days for care have taken the VA up on its offer to arrange care elsewhere.
Statistics from the audit show the agency has a lot of work to do to reach the two-week goal.
New VA patients in eastern Colorado now wait 36 days for mental health care, compared with 22 days in some VA locations and as long as 45 days in others. Nationwide, new VA patients waited 34 days for mental health care.
Colorado's Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Udall asked for more details on VA issues in Colorado Springs and is pushing a VA reform bill as an answer to the agency's woes.
"I am committed to ensuring that the VA system works for Colorado's veterans," Udall said in a statement Monday. "That means bringing new leadership to the department and passing the bipartisan VA-reform bill to allow veterans to promptly receive the care they've earned and confront the problems at facilities in Grand Junction, Colorado Springs and elsewhere across the country."
Colorado Springs Republican U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn said he's aware of the VA probe in Colorado Springs and is looking at options to expand veterans care in the region.
The House VA committee Monday night was scheduled to hear a bill that would offer more VA patients private care.
Lamborn said he's also examining ways to combine VA resources with the military's system of hospitals and clinics in Colorado Springs to offer veterans more options. The move would be a pilot program and hasn't emerged as a House bill.
"The beauty of combining Defense Department and VA care is for the first time you can have emergency care within the VA system," Lamborn said.