Citing "new, troubling allegations," members of Minnesota's congressional delegation are asking for an investigation of claims that the Hibbing VA clinic tampered with patient schedules.
The schedules were altered, according to some former workers at the clinic, to make it appear that veterans were being seen on a more timely basis than was true.
In reality, the ex-workers said, instead of being seen within two weeks of their desired appointment date, veterans often had to wait six to eight weeks. Six workers, including nurses and clerks, have come forward to say they objected to the practice, but were ordered to manipulate the scheduling by going in and backdating computer appointments.
In a letter to the VA's Inspector General Tuesday afternoon, Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar and Reps. Tim Walz and Rick Nolan asked that the allegations be fully investigated.
"As we have made clear in previous communication with VA Leadership and the OIG, in order to fix the VA and restore faith in the health care system for our veterans, all allegations of wrongdoing must be investigated and anyone committing wrongdoing must be punished to the full extent of the law," the officials wrote in their letter.
Nolan represents the congressional district in northern Minnesota and has met with veterans and their advocates who have raised concerns about the Hibbing clinic.
Walz is a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee and a retired command sergeant major in the U.S. Army.
Stopped in April
The Star Tribune reported Sunday that the former Hibbing employees maintain that the backdating orders stopped only in late April, when investigators found that the VA medical system, which serves almost 9 million veterans nationwide every year, was maintaining secret waiting lists and delivering insufficient care throughout its system.
Both Sterling Medical Associates, the Cincinnati-based company contracted to run the clinic, and the VA said last week that there is no evidence of current tampering, and Sterling denies ever ordering any schedule tampering. Senior leaders from the Minneapolis VA now make monthly visits to the clinic.
In a statement addressing questions for the Sunday story, the VA said the Minneapolis VA was aware of scheduling problems reported on a hot line to the Office of Inspector General, and that, after an investigation and interviews with Hibbing staff in June, Inspector General agents found the allegations to be unsubstantiated.
The Inspector General is the independent investigative arm of the agency.
A spokeswoman for the OIG said on Monday that the Inspector General never conducted the interviews. Although Minneapolis-based staff were interviewed by the Inspector General earlier this year, the VA said it erred in saying the Hibbing clinic staff had been interviewed.
"The VA Office of Inspector General did not conduct a review or investigation of scheduling practices at the Hibbing CBOC [community-based outpatient clinic]," said spokeswoman Cathy Gromek.
Hibbing employees interviewed at the time said they believed they were talking to the Inspector General's office. The VA said the Hibbing workers were interviewed by VA health care workers as part of a nationwide audit, not investigators from the OIG.
The workers said they came away disappointed that the interviews took only about 10 minutes and they were asked only if the practice was happening currently, not about the past, the newspaper reported.
In a statement, the Minneapolis VA said it welcomed the Inspector General review of the new allegations.