West Virginia’s four VA medical centers were named in a nationwide lawsuit filed in federal court last week alleging a number of facilities have not responded to public information requests seeking wait times and other records related to patient care.
The lawsuit claims the four hospitals are among 14 veteran health care facilities ducking Freedom of Information Act requests filed by Americans For Prosperity, a political advocacy group. The foundation filed the lawsuit last Tuesday in United States District Court for the District of Columbia, naming the federal Department of Veterans Affairs and listing the four centers within the 26-page complaint.
The Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center in Clarksburg, the Hershel “Woody” Williams VA Medical Center in Huntington, the Beckley VA Medical Center and the Martinsburg VA Medical Centers are listed as facilities that did not respond to records requests filed May 28.
Roseanne Rodriguez, coalitions director for the Virginia branch of Concerned Veterans for America, an education and advocacy group under Americans For Prosperity, said by phone that the lawsuit centers on the amount of time veterans spend waiting for care after making an appointment. The passage of the VA MISSION Act in 2018 created the Veterans Community Care Program, which aimed to shorten, track and record these wait times.
The law, which stands for “Maintaining Internal Systems and Strengthening Integrated Outside Networks,” followed years behind a 2014 report that alleged a VA facility in Phoenix kept secret wait lists and falsified records to obscure noncompliance with the agency’s 14-day target wait time. Additional digging proved this to be a nationwide problem in the agency, leading to reforms and legislation.
The community care program mandates that, when a veteran requests an appointment for primary care, mental health or noninstitutional extended care, the VA must schedule an appointment within 20 days of the request.
For specialty care, the appointment must be scheduled within 28 days. If the local facility cannot meet a veteran’s needs, they are permitted to seek private care.
Rodriguez said veterans have shared stories about waiting much longer than one month for an appointment. The system has proved it is still not working for patients, she said, and these personal experiences back up some of the already available data on wait times since the passage of the law.
“We’re happy to see this lawsuit being filed, because we’re really hoping that the VA is going to be held accountable, and we’d like to see some transparency. Wait times have been a huge problem,” said Rodriguez, a retired U.S. Army medic. “This law passed, but they’re not abiding by the rules that had been set by the VA MISSION Act.”
Spokespeople for the Clarksburg, Martinsburg and Huntington VA Medical Centers provided a statement from the agency’s national office in response to a request for comment.
“It is VA policy to generally not discuss pending litigation. West Virginia Veterans deserve our best and the best requires accountability through transparency. We fully support the Freedom of Information Act process, which ensures our Veterans, the public, and all stakeholders that we are transparent and accountable to the quality of care we provide,” the statement read.
A voicemail left Tuesday at the Beckley VA Medical Center seeking comment was not returned.
Rodriguez said there was hope among veterans that the MISSION Act would fix long wait times. The legislation was a “perfect vehicle” that set standards for hospitals to follow, she said, but veterans’ stories show their needs are not being met.
“A lot of them don’t know their rights under the VA MISSION Act,” she said. “We’re hearing so many of them are having issues getting appointments — I mean they’re waiting months to get appointments.”
Like Phoenix, three of the 10 other centers named are in Arizona, six are in Florida and one is in Montana.
The end goal is to make the VA a more accountable and transparent agency, Rodriguez said, as veterans have continued to be hurt by the department’s failure of health care.
“The requested records have significant value that serves the public interest. The VA has faced repeated scandal in recent years over its mismanagement of patient scheduling and wait-time data,” the complaint reads. “Publicly available records suggest yet another scandal is brewing, with the VA covering up wait-time data and doing little else to avoid the problem.”