TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – A government agency asserts that the system for calculating veteran health care wait-times lacks reliability and accuracy, supporting details revealed in an 8 On Your Side investigation and echoing criticism from VA watchdogs.

A new report by the Government Accountability Office questioned the metrics used by Veterans Affairs for wait-time records and recommended ways to improve the reliability of the data.

VA facility wait-times are the foundation of the 2019 Mission Act and Community Care that allows outside treatment for patients who wait longer than 20 days for primary, mental and extended care, and 28 days for specialty care. 

“It is blatantly obvious that the VA is failing to follow the law.”

Jimmie Smith – Concerned Veterans for America

Air Force Veteran Darin Selnick, the senior advisor for Concerned Veterans For America, helped write the Mission Act that called for starting the Community Care clock on the “date of request” for an appointment by the veteran. Selnick claims the VA has been “gaming the system” and the data to block veterans from qualifying for private sector treatment.

“You go on the website and it says this particular facility has a short wait-time. It’s just not true,” Selnick said. “Or at least, we don’t know what the truth is because we can’t get an actual wait-time based on date of request.”

The 22-page GAO report covered a number of VA topics, focusing on wait-time measures in a section on “Timely Health Care.”

“Although VA has requested closure of our recommendation to improve the reliability of wait-time measures,” the report states. “We continue to believe that additional actions are necessary.”

The GAO reported concerns about ensuring “the reliability of [VA] wait-time data,” and stated the VA itself “was unable to evaluate the accuracy” of wait-times in a February 2019 internal audit.

The report, released May 10, also called into question when the VA starts the clock.

“Specifically, VA’s desired date field – intended to be the date on which the patient or provider wants the patient to be seen – is subject to interpretation, which poses concerns for the reliability of wait-time measures,” the report states.

Selnick has said interpretation instead of following the regulation is how the VA is “cooking the books.”

VA spokesperson Randal Noller said the agency is reviewing GAO’s current recommendations, but added the average wait-times referred to in the report are not used to determine Community Care eligibility.

“Since VA implemented the MISSION Act in June 2019, more than 3 million Veterans have received care through our community networks including through the use of expanded Emergency Department and Urgent Care options,” Noller said.

According to data received in 8 in a records request, less than 8 percent of Bay Area VA network patients were offered Community Care last year.

An 8 On Your Side public records request showed the calendar starts rolling on the “Patient Preferred Date,” defined in one document as the date preferred by the VA.

When we asked why it’s not started on the date a patient requests an appointment as in the “date of request,” a spokesperson responded in an email, “Patient Preferred Date is the same as date of request.”

Not according to Selnick and other watchdogs.

Noller said VA determines each Veteran’s wait-time eligibility by counting days “from the time care is requested to the time it can be delivered.”

But as the GAO questions the VA data, Concerned Veterans for America’s Florida Director Jimmie Smith continues to push for improvements.

“Between the 2019-2020 annual audit, the COVID response audit and this GAO report it is blatantly obvious that the VA is failing to follow the law.” Smith said. “Until there is full implementation of the Mission act and other laws, this scathing report and the others will only continue to prove that the only answer is to make choice for veterans the priority.”

The recommended changes in the report include clarifying the scheduling policy, identifying clearer wait-time measures that are not subject to interpretation and establishing a policy for oversight of medical centers.

The report also said while the 77 percent of GAO recommendations made four years ago were implemented by the VA, 233 recommendations have been shelved as of May.