Internal emails from the Hampton VA uncovered by a NewsChannel 3 investigation show schedulers at the hospital are working overtime on what's known as the NEAR (New Enrollee Appointment Request) call list. They are contacting 836 veterans who have been waiting for an appointment to try and get them in as quickly as possible after the Phoenix VA scandal.
It's something our local VA hospital has never publicly admitted before - that veterans are falling through the cracks and not seeing doctors in a timely manner.
NewsChannel 3 pressed the Hampton VA about the NEAR call list through email last week. Now the hospital's director, Michael Dunfee, is finally admitting the call list has not been used properly in the past.
Because of it, he could not guarantee that all veterans who asked for an appointment actually got one.
It’s just the latest problem uncovered at our local VA hospital, but according to those who used to work at the Hampton VA, there is much more still waiting to be discovered.
“They will go to any lengths to protect themselves, their positions and their bonuses,” said Dr. Pamela Gray, who worked at the Hampton VA from 2008-2010 in both the primary care and internal medicine departments.
During her time there, she says she learned first-hand how schedulers got around the VA's 30-day appointment guidelines.
“The scheduler was told to note that the patient called to request a later date, when in fact that date, two months, three months, four months down the line, was the initial opening,” said Dr. Gray. “In doing it that way, the chief would be able to say we met our goal. Everyone was seen in the allotted time frame, and that equals a bonus.”
Dr. Gray also says archaic rules put in place by those at the top hampered the hospital's ability to provide timely care, contributing to long appointment wait times.
“You can't have openings if you only start at 8AM, quit at 4PM, and have 60 minutes off for lunch. In 28 years of private practice, I don’t think I ever ate lunch. You work straight through, and when someone calls urgently needing to be seen, your answer is yes,” said Dr. Gray.
Dr. Gray says at the Hampton VA that type of productivity is not accepted, and she was actually reprimanded for trying to fit more patients into her schedule.
“Their scheduling system didn’t allow anyone to be scheduled between 12-1, therefore it couldn’t be done,” said Dr. Gray. “The reason I was given was that they didn't want my productivity to exceed the other physicians, because it would show more work could be done.”
Because of the way the VA tracks hospital performance, though, the Hampton VA hospital consistently touts themselves as being one of the top performers in the country.
“They have crosses all the T’s and dotted all the I's in their system, but their system is not reality,” said Dr. Gray.
For those vets who can't get an appointment, the Hampton VA insists their ER is always there to provide timely care.
Marine veteran John Morgan would argue otherwise.
In 2009, he was misdiagnosed by doctors in the Hampton VA's ER and sent home without care after experiencing a stroke.
“I’m thinking, he is the doctor, he knows better, I will listen to him, even though I know in the back of my mind I’m having a stroke,” said Morgan.
The results were devastating, leaving him permanently disabled and unable to work.
Even after the VA Inspector General launched an investigation into his care and found the doctor was indeed at fault, the Hampton VA still wouldn’t pay his claim.
“The VA said even though it happened, we bear no responsibility for it because the doctor was contracted,” said Morgan.
“Someone at the VA hired that doctor, so you take responsibility for who works under your roof,” said Dr. Gray. “That is just one story, there are many, many, many other stories.”
So what's the answer? How do we fix the broken system?
Dr. Gray says the best way is to adopt a system like Tricare, which allows military families to choose between care with a private doctor or military doctors.
Whatever lawmakers decide, Dr. Gray just hopes stories like hers actually make a difference this time in the care of our nation's veterans.
“I would hope we don’t wait for another scandal,” said Dr. Gray. “ How many more scandals do we need?”