KGUN 9News


OIG "Criminal" probe into Tucson VA confirms whistleblower's claims

Posted at 1:10 PM, Nov 18, 2016
and last updated 2016-11-30 14:54:10-05

Whistleblowers have come forward describing years of deceptive practices that have been shrouded in secrecy. Practices that have left many Southern Arizona veterans in pain, pleading for better care at the VA for years.  

Sounding the alarm since 2008, former VA administrator Pat McCoy.
McCoy repeatedly complained to the former Tucson VA director, Jonathan Gardner, about the unethical scheduling practices, but she says that he said the issue didn't exist.
"I was dismissed," she said.
McCoy took her case to the Office of Inspector General, which launched a criminal investigation.
She reported 600 requests for urology appointments stuffed into a drawer by a staff member, which stopped the appointment clock. That means veterans with health issues would have to wait for appointments. Some up to a year. 
The claim was confirmed by the OIG in a report released last week, more than 2 years later.
McCoy reported the VA even went so far as to place fake consults into medical records to meet performance measures.
However, those measures or goals are tracked by Central VA.
That claim confirmed by the OIG.
The criminal investigators also confirmed that there were consults that employees discontinued because the requirement of waiting no more than 30 days for the next appointment could not be met.
And the investigation confirmed 400 orthopedic appointment requests were on individual pieces of paper in an employee's desk instead of on the Electronic Wait List, and then later destroyed.
McCoy says former director Gardner and now acting director Jennifer Gutowski ignored, downplayed, or dismissed many urgent wait time concerns to hide severe staffing shortages.
The shortages confirmed by the OIG.
The report shows that "two scheduling supervisors made statements that suggested they trained schedulers to control the desired date in a way that was contrary to VA policy."
The claim of managers instructing employees to manipulate patient schedules confirmed in the released OIG report last week that centered on one whistleblower's 2014 complaint, Diane Suter.
Suter: "The manager is the one who came and told me I had to falsify the records in the computer. She told me to get out of my chair and took the computer I was in and showed me how to do it where you actually zero out the days. I told her that's not the way I was taught. And I said it seems unethical if not illegal and she says you do it my way or the highway."
Cavazos: "Is that manager still there?"
Suter: "Yes."
"What you see in those two reports is pretty astounding. Not only were they manipulating access back when I reported them back as far as 2008 it continues to this day," said McCoy.
McCoy says while she applauds the criminal investigators for not only looking into the issue but expanding the scope of the investigation, she criticizes the OIG finding that managers didn't know the employees were gaming the system, including acting director Jennifer Gutowski, who was hired in 2012 as second in command and then took over the top spot in January 2016 after Gardner resigned.
"She is the associate director. She's as responsible as he is. This whole pentad is responsible for what went on with this data. They're all responsible. They all knew about it. The chiefs of staff knew about it. I know they did. I told them." said McCoy.

Suter: "I gave all the information to her."

Cavazos: "She knows the root cause?"

Suter: "Yes."

Cavazos: "Because you told her."

Suter: "Yes."

KGUN sat down with the acting director Jennifer Gutowski, who agreed to an interview for the first time since we launched our investigation into the Tucson VA.
Cavazos: "Did you know any of this stuff was going on? Because some of this fell under your role as associate director."
Gutowski: We have definitely come a long way since 2014 and some of those processes that that have been happening. And we've done a lot and also just in general from the VA perspective to improve how we're doing scheduling processes and practices."
And her response about managers improperly directing staff to manipulate schedules was, "and we own that in that report. And we are moving forward to convene an administrative review board to look at the allegations that's in there and the recommendation that's in that report. We are apologizing for that inappropriate scheduling that happened as noted in that (2014) report. We own that and we've been working since then to improve the processes and improve the scheduling of our veterans."
Cavazos: "Is there any accountability for those who are doing anything unethical?"
Gutowski: As we stated earlier, we are convening an administrative investigation board and that board will take a look at the allegations."
Cavazos: "Could that mean that some of these people could be fired?"
Gutowski: "I think that's a little premature to say. I think the board will review the allegations and then go from there."
Although Gutowski says she's optimistic about staff's efforts to help wipe out unethical actions, McCoy isn't.
Cavazos: "What do you want the VA to do right now?"
McCoy: That's a huge question. I'd like the VA to hold people accountable and they don't."