El Paso's two U.S. House members are seeking answers from the area's Veterans Administration Health Care System following reports that VA offices elsewhere concealed extremely long wait times for veterans seeking care.
The Phoenix Veterans Administration Health Care System hid data and kept a secret list of wait times to hide the problem, according to news reports.
U.S. Reps. Beto O'Rourke, D-El Paso, and Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, in an April 29 letter to local VA director John Mendoza and his superiors sought assurances that the El Paso office was not employing the same practices.
"We want to provide our constituents with accurate information about how the El Paso VAHCS is tracking and reporting data on healthcare wait times and providing timely access to care for all veterans," the congressmen wrote.
The letter was posted online Monday as the issue has attracted national scrutiny.
The congressmen specifically asked for answers to whether the El Paso VA has ever maintained a secret list of wait time data of its own, as well as an accounting of how the office measures and reports wait times and a description of safeguards at the local, regional and national level. The letter also asked the VA to explain how the situation in the Phoenix office will be remedied.
O'Rourke joined other members of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs in voting to subpoena VA Secretary Eric Shinseki for emails and other documents related to the waitlists in Phoenix.
El Paso VA spokeswoman Sheila Austin said she couldn't comment on the correspondence, which also included Robert Petzel, under secretary of health at the VA, and Susan Bowers, who oversees the regional network of facilities that includes Phoenix and El Paso.
"In addition to a nationwide access review directed by Secretary Shinseki, El Paso VA is conducting an internal review of our processes, practices and training conducted in scheduling appointments, which includes using electronic tools to facilitate appointments," Austin said in an email. "The purpose of the review both internally and by an external audit team is to ensure a full understanding of VA's policy and continued integrity in managing patient access to care. Our most important mission is to make sure Veterans know VA is here to care for them and provide the high quality care and benefits they have earned and deserve."
A Congressional investigation found last month that the deaths of as many as 40 veterans could be tied to delays in care at the Phoenix VA and that there was evidence the office had kept a secret list of wait times. The Arizona Republic reported earlier this month that the director of the Phoenix VA Health Care System and two other administrators were placed on leave following the allegations.
On Friday, an official at the Wyoming VA was placed on leave after CBS News reported on emails suggesting similar practices there.
VA Officials in Central Texas said last week that they had begun reviewing their own practices last week in response to the problems in Phoenix, according to the Austin American-Statesman. A day earlier, Shinseki launched audits of scheduling practices at VA Health Care centers across the country.
The Statesman had previously reported allegations of data manipulation involving wait times in Austin, San Antonio and Waco.
John Ceballos, a former chairman of the Benavidez-Patterson veterans group, said veterans across the country have faced challenges with long wait times to receive health care.
"A lot of these guys, they're pretty much in dire straights," he said. "They need those appointments so they can be seen and have a variety of different issues addressed."
The El Paso VA has had its own issues providing timely care to the 20,000 veterans in the area, according to the letter from O'Rourke and Gallego. They cite data showing the facility ranks 118 out of 128 nationally for mental health wait times. And a survey conducted by one of the congressional offices reported 28 percent of veterans who responded were unable to get an appointment to see a mental health provider in the last year.
Gallego said he has seen no evidence to indicate a scheme similar to the Phoenix VA is taking place in El Paso. But he said those numbers show more needs to be done to serve veterans in the area.
"We have a commitment to those veterans," he said. "I think the VA is not meeting those commitments. I think that is inexcusable."