VA not saying how many clinics operate at capacity

Veterans Affairs Department officials say a veteran's experience in June at two VA clinics that turned him away for appointments should not have happened, and added that they resolved the problem by getting the patient an appointment and providing training for employees at those north Georgia facilities.

Officials cannot say whether other veterans have had similar encounters at VA's other 817 outpatient clinics, even while insisting that this is not happening elsewhere.

Former Army Spc. Chris Dorsey walked into a VA clinic in June to make a mental health appointment. He was told the clinic was not accepting new patients.

He went to another clinic near his home, and, still frustrated by the earlier response, switched on his phone's video recorder.

"We're not accepting any new patients," the receptionist says in the video Dorsey posted online.

The video drew quick attention from the media and Congress, whose members remain concerned that VA is failing to care for veterans, despite a $10 billion inflow last year to expand veterans' access to health care.

After the incident, VA officials, including VA Secretary Bob McDonald, said Dorsey was given incorrect information and should have been provided options for care, either within the VA system or through a private doctor.

According to VA, when one of the 819 clinics is operating at capacity, patients are "seen elsewhere until there is an opening at their desired clinic."

But when asked how many other clinics in the VA system besides the two that Dorsey attended may be turning patients away, VA headquarters officials did not seem to know. A VA spokeswoman said July 13 that headquarters staff would have to call each clinic individually to determine whether they are full and cannot accept new patients.

In response to a request for the information from Military Times, VA spokeswoman Walinda West said patients are never supposed to be turned away.

When a facility is operating at capacity, she said, "We can refer the patient to other clinics, or we have the option of the Choice Program for eligible veterans. If it is an emergency, we will refer the patient to the nearest emergency room."

Still, Dorsey's experience indicates some patients aren't getting that message.

VA regions, called Veterans Integrated Service Networks, maintain reports on capacity and usage for its medical centers and community-based outpatient clinics, according to Scott Davis, a VA employee and whistleblower who works at the VA's health eligibility center in Atlanta.

West did not mention the existence of such reports to Military Times and continued to insist that VA administrators would have to call each clinic to determine whether they can accommodate new patients.

"VHA can communicate with our many clinics in the field, but we do not have that information immediately available to offer at this time," West said.

Davis, who has raised concerns over data management and testified before the House Veterans' Affairs Committee on the issue, called that response disconcerting but unsurprising.

"What it shows is poor record-keeping," Davis said. "It's the shoddy sort of management that exists in the department and no one is held accountable."

Information management problems have plagued VA for more than seven years, resulting in scandal after scandal, including lost and improperly discarded benefits claims forms, secret wait lists for patient appointments and falsified records.

Most recently, veterans' disability claims paperwork was found in a shredding bin in California and the VA's health eligibility system was revealed to contain applications from 240,000 veterans who are dead.

Another 2.4 million deceased veterans remain listed in the VA's medical records system.

Officials say they can't expunge the names of the deceased veterans from their records because regulations prevent the use of outside sources such as Social Security or Medicare records to confirm veterans' deaths.

West said VA is working to address many of its issues.

"We know we must improve our service to veterans and that is precisely why Secretary McDonald began 'MyVA,' a reorganization of the department with the singular goal of placing the veteran at the center of everything we do," West said.

Lawmakers say they have concerns about the timeliness and accuracy of VA record-keeping and are considering hearings on the issues, including the health eligibility pending list and denial of care to veterans like Dorsey.

"No veteran should ever fall through the cracks when attempting to receive the care they have earned," said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., House Veterans' Affairs Committee chairman.

Dorsey said he was given an appointment at his local clinic in Oakwood, Georgia — the place that turned him away — after VA officials intervened in his case.

He said he was glad to get the appointment but also remains concerned about the VA's handling of the situation.

"What bothers me is that someone got pushed from that space, that appointment slot, so I could be seen," Dorsey said.

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