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July 2, 2019

Whistleblower says she was told to schedule fake VA appointments

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    A Veterans Affairs (VA) whistleblower alleges that she was directed to schedule fake appointments to improperly remove veterans from electronic wait lists in an effort to hide long wait times at a VA health care facility.

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    The allegations come after VA in 2014 first came under scrutiny for revelations that VA officials had covered up "secret" appointment lists, and that some veterans had died awaiting care.

    The whistleblower's allegations

    According to the Washington Post, Minu Aghevli is a VA whistleblower who is a clinical psychologist with a VA opioid treatment program in Baltimore. Aghevli on Tuesday testified about VA misconduct before the House Veterans' Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.

    As part of her testimony, Aghevli said, "In order to reduce [an appointment] wait list, I was instructed to improperly remove veterans from the electronic wait list by scheduling fake appointments for them in an imaginary clinic." She continued, "This clinic was not tied to any provider or location, nor did it actually correspond to any real visits. … The veterans scheduled for these fictitious appointments were not actually receiving VA care."

    Aghevli said she protested the order and did not schedule fake appointments for veterans.

    Aghevli also testified that VA workers would code indigent patients as no longer needing care, without confirming whether the patients still needed care, in order to reduce reported wait times.

    In addition, Aghevli said VA officials "deliberately sent … incorrect numbers to Congress" when lawmakers requested information on VA wait lists in September 2015.

    According to the Post, Subcommittee Chair Chris Pappas (D-N.H.) during the hearing said the panel also is investigating allegations of secret wait lists made last month by Jereme Whiteman, VA's national director of clinic practice management. Whiteman said internal VA reports indicate that the number of veterans waiting for appointments at VA health facilities could be significantly higher than the number VA reports to the public.

    The hearing featured testimony only from whistleblowers and their advocates, the Post reports. According to the Post, Pappas said the panel will invite VA officials to testify on the issue at a later date.

    VA Secretary Robert Wilkie in a letter sent last week to the panel criticized lawmakers for not including VA officials in the hearing. "When the committee holds a hearing to air criticisms of [VA], while simultaneously preventing [VA] from participating to offer context and defend itself  the [c]ommittee's efforts risk appearing more like a political news conference than a hearing aimed at a balanced look at serious issues," Wilkie wrote.

    Aghevli receives a pink slip

    The day before she testified, Aghevli received a document more than 170 pages long informing her that VA intended to fire her, the Post reports. According to the Post, Aghevli believes disclosures she has made about misconduct at VA lead to her dismissal. VA removed Aghevli from patient care in April, after she had filed a complaint about a patient safety issue, the Post reports.

    However, VA in a statement said Aghevli's proposed dismissal "is in no way related to any whistleblower activity. Rather, it is due to a number of serious clinical practice allegations against the employee."

    According to the Post, the Office of Special Counsel, which works to protect federal whistleblowers, has taken steps to block Aghevli's dismissal while the office reviews her case (Davidson, Washington Post, 6/27; Kommers, Becker's Hospital Review, 6/28; Davidson, Washington Post, 6/3).

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