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Senators unhappy with VA’s replies

Coats, Donnelly to continue push for facility data

They say if you write a letter to someone, you'll get a letter back. But U.S. senators from Indiana didn't receive exactly what they sought when they corresponded recently with the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Sens. Dan Coats and Joe Donnelly had asked VA Secretary Eric Shinseki in May to verify whether VA clinics in Indiana had manipulated patient waiting times, as has been reported about VA facilities elsewhere.

After Shinseki resigned in the wave of media coverage of patient-care lapses, the senators repeated their request in a letter this month to VA Acting Secretary Sloan Gibson. They also sought an in-person meeting with agency leaders to discuss wait times and scheduling concerns at Hoosier VA clinics, which include a regional medical center in Fort Wayne.

A letter dated June 11 from Gibson referred to allegations of delayed care and employee misconduct at the Phoenix VA Health Care System and to a nationwide initiative to speed care delivery. It offered no information on Indiana facilities but referred the senators to a nationwide audit, released June 9, containing “specific facility-level information, related to average wait times and numbers of appointment requests that have not yet been scheduled.”

Gibson said in his letter that 112 VA sites will require another review to determine the extent of scheduling troubles. He did not mention that those sites include the VA medical center in Indianapolis but not those in Fort Wayne and Marion.

Gibson provided Republican Coats and Democrat Donnelly with VA contact information if they have more questions.

The Journal Gazette asked the senators' offices on Monday whether they are satisfied with Gibson's response to their query.

“The VA's internal audit answered many of the Senator's initial questions, but significant uncertainties about VA facilities in Indiana and across the country remain,” Matt Lahr, communications director for Coats, wrote in an email.

“Given the results of the VA's own audit, Senator Coats will continue to push for an independent investigation into the VA,” he said.

“Ultimately, he believes the VA needs a change of culture to ensure veterans are receiving the care they deserve,” Lahr said.

“Senator Donnelly will not be satisfied until he has a complete understanding of any issues at Indiana VA facilities, as well as the VA's plans to ensure that all Hoosier veterans have timely access to the quality health care they deserve,” Elizabeth Shappell, communications director for Donnelly, wrote in an email.

“The response received from the VA did not address these concerns. While the VA's investigation is ongoing, Senator Donnelly will continue to pursue additional information from the VA in Washington as well as continue to engage with the individual VA health care facilities across the state,” Shappell said.

VA's patient-access audit conducted in mid-May found that 78 patients of the VA Northern Indiana Health Care System, which includes Fort Wayne and Marion medical centers, were waiting at least 90 days for physician appointments.

The audit of the Indianapolis medical center found that 172 patients were waiting that long.