Counsel: Feds didn't properly investigate whistleblower claims at VA hospital

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' inspector general failed to properly investigate a whistleblower's claims that a west suburban Chicago VA hospital had covered up delays in veterans' access to care, federal investigators said Thursday.

Germaine Clarno, a social worker and union president at Hines VA Hospital, found out in 2011 that supervisors at the hospital were telling workers to "zero out" patient wait times and to avoid using the hospital's official electronic scheduling system in order to mask major delays in veterans receiving treatment.

Not following the hospital's required scheduling practices allowed officials to cover up wait times for mental health patients that typically ranged from six to nine months, federal investigators said.

The VA department's inspector general investigating the whistleblower claims limited the scope of the probe, and in the findings did not address the whistleblower's basic concerns about veterans' access to health care, U.S. Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner wrote Thursday in a letter to the White House and Congress.

Lerner's report was the latest setback for the Department of Veteran Affairs, which has been rocked by allegations that it covered up long patient wait times for years. The scandal led to the resignation of the department's chief, Eric Shinseki, in May 2014.

Lerner called the VA inspector general's probe "deficient."

"Despite confirming ongoing delays in access to care at Hines, the agency report did not discuss or address actual wait times, or the impact of such delays on veterans' health," Lerner's report said. "Nor did the report provide any recommendations for corrective action to resolve the ongoing delays."

A spokeswoman for Hines VA Hospital declined to comment on the claims.

Lerner also pointed to similar shortcomings in another investigation into a social worker's claims that 2,700 veterans were waiting to be assigned to a mental health provider at Overton Brooks VA Medical Center in Shreveport, La.

In that case, the inspector general's office failed to review whether a spreadsheet confirmed the whistleblower's concerns about access to mental health care. Instead, it simply determined that the document was not "secret."

The Office of Inspector General had denied Lerner's request to review a copy of the complete investigation reports, "undermining our ability to properly assess the VA's resolution of these issues."

Sloan Gibson, deputy secretary of Veterans Affairs, will review the investigations and Lerner's report to determine what steps should be taken to improve access to care at Hines and Overton Brooks, Lerner said in the report.

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