Statements from the VA in response to Channel 2 report from Oct. 14

Tonight, received the VA’s response to allegations we broadcast on Channel 2 Action News at 6p.m. from staffers in the Atlanta VA Community Care Department. Tuesday night we had sent the VA a detailed list of allegations for response in an anticipation of the Wednesday evening broadcast of our report.

The agency says, in part:

"All Atlanta VA Health Care System patients in need of treatment are getting it in the most timely fashion possible – whether at our facility or in the community. No patients are encountering clinically significant delays.

"Every Atlanta VAHCS consult is reviewed by an in house provider before it is sent to community care to ensure all urgent and time sensitive requests are handled as soon as possible. Both before and throughout the pandemic, all VA health care facilities have been providing same-day services in primary and mental health for Veterans who need them.

"The volume of community care requests is fluctuating because of the pandemic.

"The crux of this matter is that many community providers were not accepting referrals for certain services during COVID-19.

"In instances where community providers are not accepting referrals, VA is offering Veterans any needed services at VA facilities.

"The crux of this matter is that many community providers were not accepting referrals for certain services during COVID-19.

“In instances where community providers are not accepting referrals, VA is offering Veterans any needed services at VA facilities.”

In response to some of the allegations, the VA asked us to provide more information “so we can look into it right away.” The agency also responded to a number of specific allegations we forwarded from Community Care staffers.

Concerning allegations backlogs can run weeks or months longer than they should. (One community care staffer reports a veteran told him he waited at least a year for treatment), the VA responded, "The pandemic led to a lag in referrals among all health care providers – not just VA – because many community providers were not accepting referrals for certain services during COVID-19.

"Atlanta VA Health Care System’s outstanding community care requests are mostly for preventive care that is appropriately scheduled three to six months – or even longer – in advance

"Every Atlanta VAHCS consult is reviewed by an in house provider before it is sent to community care to ensure all urgent and time sensitive requests are handled as soon as possible. Both before and throughout the pandemic, all VA health care facilities have been providing same-day services in primary and mental health for Veterans who need them.

“To be clear: all Atlanta VA Health Care System patients in need of treatment are getting it in the most timely fashion possible – whether at our facility or in the community. No patients are encountering clinically significant delays.”

Concerning an allegation community care has been delayed for thousands of veterans in Georgia, the agency responded: “The pandemic led to a lag in referrals among all health care providers – not just VA – because many community providers were not accepting referrals for certain services during COVID-19.”

Community care staffers indicated to Channel 2 that delays in care for veterans are partly the fault of failed leadership at the Atlanta VA; there has been a revolving door of managers overseeing community care there and some have little or no background in community care, leaving them unable to offer solutions to problems. The response: “That’s not true. The Atlanta VA Health Care System has been working continuously to improve its Community Care department.”

The agency listed improvements including:

--"We have installed a new community care leadership team in early 2020, including a new Associate Chief of staff for care in the community.

-- “After the Associate Chief of staff for care in the community unexpectedly passed in September, we brought in someone from another VA medical center with extensive knowledge of both community care and group practice management.”

-- “We have standardized the community care consult process”

--"Increased Community Care employees by 20 percent in the past year."

Concerning a report some providers are not scheduling until next year, the VA alleged "a fundamental misunderstanding of how the medical appointment scheduling and referral process works. Preventive care is routinely and appropriately scheduled three to six months – or even longer – in advance.

We also sought the VA’s response on what we were told about a document shows, including that, as of September 25th, out of 28,145 referrals for veterans to get care in the community from the Atlanta VA, 5,458 referrals had been sitting with no action or follow-up more than thirty days, and 397 referrals had been sitting for more than three months with no action.

“Please provide the referenced document,” The VA said.