'Data Manipulation': See How The VA Artificially Lowered Wait Times

Reasonable people assume that a “wait time” for receiving medical care refers to the number of day between the initial request for healthcare and the actual date of the first appointment. Not according to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), however, which deployed a misleading method of calculating “primary care appointment wait times” to artificially lower numbers presented to casual observers.

Without attributing malevolent intent to the VA’s management, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) wrote:

For newly enrolled veterans, VHA calculates primary care appointment wait times starting from the veterans' preferred dates (the dates veterans want to be seen), rather than the dates veterans initially requested VA contact them to schedule appointments. Therefore, these data do not capture the time these veterans wait prior to being contacted by schedulers, making it difficult for officials to identify and remedy scheduling problems that arise prior to making contact with veterans. Further, ongoing scheduling errors, such as incorrectly revising preferred dates when rescheduling appointments, understated the amount of time veterans waited to see providers. Officials attributed these errors to confusion by schedulers, resulting from the lack of an updated standardized scheduling policy. These errors continue to affect the reliability of wait-time data used for oversight, which makes it more difficult to effectively oversee newly enrolled veterans' access to primary care.

In order to mislead observers, the VA calculated wait times as being the delay between the date of a preferred appointment and the actual appointment date, rather than measuring the number of days between a veteran’s first attempt to contact the VA to schedule an appointment and the actual date of the appointment.

The GAO released findings on Tuesday of a study it conducted of wait times for veterans seeking medical care from the VA.

The GAO study examined 180 veterans who were newly enrolled for care with the VA. Of the 120 who had since been seen by healthcare providers (60 were still awaiting care by the time the study was completed), their wait times spanned from 22 to 71 days. 12 veterans waited more than 90 days to see a healthcare provider. The average wait time for the 120 veterans who had met with a healthcare provider by the time of the study’s conclusion was 40.5 days.

VA policy is for newly enrolled veterans to see a healthcare provider within 30 days of their request for an appointment. 56% of the 120 veterans who had met with a healthcare provider by the time of the study’s conclusion were seen within this target time frame.

VA policy also requires its schedulers to have made at least 3 attempts to contact veterans to make appointments within 7 days of the veterans’ initial requests. 31% of the 120 veterans who had been seen by healthcare providers by the time of the study’s conclusion had not been contacted in accordance with this policy.

The Obama Administration had deployed a similar reconfiguration of data in measuring deportations of foreigners illegally in the country in order to artificially boost statistics. Presumably at President Barack Obama’s request, Immigration and Customs Enforcement began categorizing the numbers of foreigners prevented from illegally entering the country by interception at the border as deportations. During previous administrations, such “capture and release” incidents were not categorized as deportations.

During a hearing on Tuesday before the House Committee of Veterans’ Affairs, Representative Jeff Miller noted that VA Secretary Robert McDonald had stated the average wait for veterans at a selection of 6 facilities to be 5 days.

“In effect, VA continues to ignore the main forms of data manipulation,” said Miller, the committee’s chairman. “I still don’t understand how a culture could persist in presenting inaccurate data to this committee.”

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