TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – A veteran who helped write a law aimed at providing health care choices outside the Veterans Affairs network is blunt about wait times.
“The VA is cooking the books on wait times,” Darin Selnick said.
The Air Force veteran is the senior advisor for Veterans Affairs for an organization called Concerned Veterans for America and was part of the team that crafted the nearly two-year-old Mission Act that redefined Community Care.
Under the 2019 changes, the wait time calendar is supposed to start rolling on the “date of request” for an appointment from the veteran, as in the day the patient calls for the appointment, according to Selnick.
As we reported earlier this year, that did not happen for Air Force vet Jackie Turner, whose back therapy was reinstated through community care after an 8 On Your Side report about her complaints.
Combat veteran Rafael Techera’s requests to seek a private sector clinician for his service-related injury was stonewalled for months.
“I was considering killing myself every day that I was in pain,” Techera said. “Every single day that I was in pain.”
Turner and Techera are two of several local VA patients with complains about the community care process in the Tampa Bay area.
8 On Your Side filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for Bay Pines Medical Center and James Haley Medical Center wait times, based on “date of request” by patients.
Both responses included data with notes indicating the VA measures wait times from, “the patient’s preferred/clinically indicated date.”
The VA’s own pending appointment link defines “preferred date” as “the date for the appointment that is deemed clinically appropriate by a VA health care provider.”
“That’s the old time standard. That was always gaming the system. That was always starting the clock after a particular date,” Selnick said. “That’s why when we wrote the Mission Act, we spent hours discussing this change to date of request.”
Selnick and other critics claim by controlling the clock, wait times can be manipulated, killing the requirement to offer medical services outside the VA through community care.
“I think it is another scandal brewing. They should be following the law. They should be following the regulation,” Selnick said. “And the veterans should be able to get what they’ve earned and deserve and by law and regulation should have. They should not be gaming the system.”
8 On Your Side asked for clarification on the note that came with the data and received similar responses from public information officers from Washington, D.C. to St. Petersburg, including an following email from VA Sunshine Healthcare Network Office of Communication Manager Mary Kay Rutan.
“Patient preferred date is the same as date of request,” Rutan wrote.
Not according to the veteran who helped write the reg.
“They are either not telling the truth or they simply do not understand what they are talking about,” Selnick said.
Selnick and Concerned Veterans for America fear a new controversy is brewing similar to the Phoenix VA scandal that prompted Congress to enact the 2014 Choice Act law after veterans died while on waiting lists for medical appointments.
The Mission Act enhanced Community Care starting in June 2019 to allow outside treatment for wait times of longer than 20 days for primary, mental and extended care, and 28 days for specialty care. The new regulations also allow Community Care when a veteran has to travel more than 30 minutes for the former and 60 for the latter.
According to data received in 8 On Your Side’s FOIA request, Bay Pines and Haley met the wait time standards more than 90 percent of the time last year, and less than 8 percent of the patients in the two networks were offered Community Care.