Investigation: Denver VA hospital used improper waitlist for veterans’ mental health care

DENVER — A watchdog arm of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said Thursday that the agency’s Denver-area hospital violated policy by keeping improper waitlists to track veterans’ mental health care.

Investigators with the VA Office of Inspector General confirmed a whistleblower’s claim that staff kept unauthorized lists instead of using the department’s official wait list system.

That made it impossible to know if veterans who needed referrals for group therapy and other mental health care were getting timely assistance, according to the report.

The internal investigation also criticized record-keeping in post-traumatic stress disorder cases at the VA’s facility in Colorado Springs.

Patients there often went longer than the department’s stated goals of getting an initial consult within a week and treatment within 30 days, investigators found.

Investigators said the unofficial lists did not always identify the veteran or requested date of care, and they could not determine how many veterans were waiting to receive help and for how long, even with the help of staff at the facilities.

“As a result, facility and mental health managers did not have access to accurate wait time data to help make informed staffing decisions and did not have assurance that all requests for care were adequately addressed,” the report said.

Last year, former employee Brian Smothers alleged that Colorado VA facilities in Denver and Golden used unauthorized waitlists for mental health services from 2012 until September 2015.

He said the lists hid how long it takes for veterans to get treatment and made the demand for mental health care appear lower than it really was.

He said the longer veterans have to wait for mental health care, the less likely they are to use it when it becomes available.

Smothers went to Republican Sens. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Cory Gardner of Colorado, saying he had uncovered the unauthorized lists on spreadsheets in the VA computer system.

They requested the investigation along with other members of Colorado’s congressional delegation, including Rep. Mike Coffman and Sen. Michael Bennet.

“Putting veterans on secret waitlists is not acceptable. The VA should implement changes to provide the highest quality care for our veterans and hold wrongdoers accountable,” Johnson said in a statement.

“This report makes clear that the VA in Colorado still has a long way to go toward delivering proper care,” a spokesperson for Bennet said in a statement. “Michael believes that VA leadership must immediately take steps to ensure that the VA addresses the problems outlined in this report. Moving forward, the VA must ensure the necessary resources are in place so our veterans receive the timely and high-quality care they deserve.”

Unofficial waitlists have been used by VA health care facilities elsewhere. The discovery of the lists created a nationwide scandal in 2014 when 40 veterans died while waiting for appointments at a Phoenix VA hospital.

Smothers was a peer support specialist on the VA’s post-traumatic stress disorder clinical support team in Denver.

Smothers started the job in April 2015 but quit in November 2016 after he was subjected to retaliation for speaking out, he said.