A well-known Phoenix VA whistleblower has alleged mass appointment cancellations and a mental health clinic so short-staffed that phones endlessly ring off the hook without anyone to answer them.
According to an email obtained by The Daily Caller News Foundation, Kuauhtemoc Rodriguez, chief of specialty care clinics at the Phoenix VA, wrote an email to the VA inspector general Tuesday to make a third disclosure about the deplorable state of affairs at the medical center.
Back in March 2016, Rodriguez disclosed that 10,000 veterans had apparently had their appoints canceled. Those appointments were not rescheduled.
Since then, Rodriguez wrote Tuesday, Phoenix VA officials have not fixed the problems. Instead, Rodriguez said the problems have only become worse.
“Everyday alone in Specialty Care clinics there are between 10 and 15 clinic cancellations that are affecting patient care, and if Primary Care is included you can add another 10+ clinics to bring the average to over 20-25 clinics a day that are cancelled,” Rodriguez wrote in the email. “This continued mismanagement is affecting the care of patients who are continually scheduled, rescheduled, and rescheduled again, causing a severe delay of care.”
While it would seem like these veterans who keep getting bumped off appointments might be able to find some relief from the Veterans Choice Program, which allows veterans to receive care from the private sector, Rodriguez maintains there simply aren’t enough employees at the facility to move all these veterans onto the appropriate lists.
Moreover, this staffing problem apparently extends to other areas of the Phoenix VA, as well.
For example, Rodriguez said the mental health clinic has four employees who are responsible for scheduling appointments and answer more than 6,000 phone calls every month.
“Subsequently the phones ring off the hook, and Veterans are unable to contact Mental Health providers, which is a serious issue related to patient care,” Rodriguez said. “Right now all Mental Health Phone calls from every community outpatient clinic, to include rural clinics phone calls get routed to the Jade Opal Mental Health Clinic at the Phoenix VA, but there is no way that calls can be answered for that amount of volume.”
Despite Rodriguez’s requests, mental health scheduling positions have remained unfilled for more than a year.
“For over a year I’ve asked for my mental health scheduling positions to be filled with no avail. How many more Veterans are going to have to commit suicide because they can’t schedule appointments for Mental Health, or contact a crisis line because the phones can’t be answered?” he asked.
The Phoenix VA disputed Rodriguez’s most recent account, specifically regarding allegations that there aren’t enough staff members to assist veterans into the VA Choice Program.
“There are no barriers in place for referral to the Choice program,” Paul Coupaud, chief of the communication department at the Phoenix VA, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “We in Phoenix embrace the Choice program as an important partner in providing care to the over 90,000 Veterans we serve. We are even actively involved in a pilot to explore the use of Choice in situations beyond the initially identified criteria. We continue to expand our partnership with TriWest and the Choice program. Lack of staffing is not an issue in referring to Choice. Instead, staffing needs are continually assessed to make sure the resources are located in the areas with the most demand.”
Coupaud said the Phoenix VA encourages staff to get in touch with leadership regarding their concerns about care.
“We have repeatedly stated, ‘We cannot fix what we do not know about.’”
But in fact, a separate email obtained by TheDCNF shows that Rodriguez did in fact contact leadership, including Phoenix VA Director Rima Ann Nelson, about mass appointment cancellations in February, which he later described in his third OIG disclosure in March.
The latest allegations show continued trouble at the Phoenix VA, a facility that became the epicenter of the infamous wait list scandal in 2014, in which veterans died on secret wait lists while waiting for care.
In January, the Office of Special Counsel noted the facility was still struggling. Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner stated in a letter to then-President Barack Obama and Congress that employees were inappropriately canceling appointments for veterans.
The Office of Special Counsel also verified in December that potentially suicidal veterans were allowed to walk out of the emergency room, even though they presented a danger to themselves.
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