Secret waitlist for mental health services at Memphis VA

Patients at the Memphis VA Medical Center are at risk by a secret wait list that leaves at risk vets waiting more than a year and a half for necessary mental health care.

Memphis VA Hospital, U.S. gov. image.

CHICAGO, November 17, 2016 – Veterans can wait more than four hundred days for a consultation for complex mental health issues at the Memphis VA Medical Center and open appointments are being manually purged to manipulate wait times, CDN has learned.

According to a secret waiting list shared exclusively with CDN, veterans waiting for a consultation in the Psychosocial Rehabilitation and Recovery Center (PRRC) have waited as long as 402 days for a consultation; the same list has the notation “discontinued” next to many of the names; that notation means the name was manually removed from the system.

The PRRC treats complex mental health issues like suicidal/homicidal ideation, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and the mental health effects of Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI).

Brandon Coleman is a whistleblower who unraveled a similar scheme also in mental health at the Phoenix VA Medical Center and said what is happening at the Memphis VA Medical Center mirrors what he found in Phoenix.

According to the list, veterans at the Memphis VA Medical Center were not receiving a consultation which Coleman described this way. “Let’s say a vet comes in to see their doctor and they state they drink alcohol every night in excess or that they are’ having problems with a broken ankle. The provider would then do what’s called a consult to mental health or to podiatry.”

He said that not getting a consultation in a reasonable period of time in PRRC could have deadly results, noting

“Many of these vets have prior suicide attempts or may have current suicidal ideation due to drug use or their ongoing mental health disorder. So in simply erasing consults like they never existed these acutely at risk veterans are not getting properly screened for inclusion into PRRC a program that could help them immensely.”

According to an internal email also shared exclusively with CDN, the backlog is blamed on understaffing.

“The PRRC is currently using an EWL (Electronic Waiting List) to manage consults (for I believe the next 120 days) per Dr. (Mary) Fruit’s (chief of mental health) directive and secondary to staff shortage. We will begin contacting veterans in order of consult placement date when this staffing shortage is stabilized and we are able to ensure both safety and and quality of care in services offered.” —From an email written by Elizabeth Harcourt, supervisor of PRRC.

While these veterans wait for their consultation, staff has manually gone into the official database and removed most of their names from the official list, according to two sources in the Memphis VA Medical Center; thereby the hospital is manipulating wait times.

Coleman said VA blaming understaffing for long wait times is an excuse rather than an explanation.

“Since 2006 every time the VA has asked for more funding from Congress they have received it. During that time frame the annual budget has doubled. I would say this is not so much a budget issue as it is a bad management issue. The bad management starts at the top in VACO and in allowing hospital administrators to retaliate against whistleblowers when they are brave enough to come forward without consequences. it has turned the VA away from being an employer that new physicians, nurses and clinicians want to work at, and instead top notch candidates go to private sector providers where they will feel safe from retaliation by management.

“It’s impossible to recruit top talent at the VA right now when the VA allows corrupt administrators to get away with often horrible unsafe health care and does more to punish whistleblowers for simply telling the truth, then the same administrators are actually willing to do to fix the problems.”

Willie Logan, public affairs officer for the Memphis VA Medical Center, acknowledged the existence of the list but downplayed its importance in an emailed statement.

“The document in question contains redacted information from an official Electronic Wait List (EWL) which has been approved by the Veterans Health Administration.  Forty-one patients on the list have been placed on the official EWL because Psychosocial Rehabilitation & Recovery Center (PRRC) services have been reduced while we are realigning our Mental Health Clinics. Veterans’ psychosocial needs are being met through already established Mental Health programs. We are proud to offer our Veterans numerous programs under our Mental Health service umbrella which include, but are not limited to, a Chemical Dependency Center, mental health outpatient clinics, Mental Health Intensive Case Management (MHICM), and multiple support group.”

Sean Higgins, a Memphis VA Medical Center employee and frequent whistleblower, was not impressed.

“As a veteran and employee of the Memphis VA I find it appalling that this is going on. It only goes to show that Veterans at this VA are not a priority.  It is some really rotten people that work for the department of Veterans Affairs that need to be fired and not protected.  In light of the most vulnerable veterans those that are seeking Mental health assistance.  I can only hope that none of the 98 veterans on this list has done anything to themselves because of the incompetence of a few.  ICARE the VA motto what a crock of crap.”

The Memphis VA Medical Center has gone through a tumultuous period; the latest revelation continues a pattern of more than two years where nearly every single month the hospital is implicated in a new scandal.

In February, the hospital’s director, C. Diane Knight, was removed replaced by former Altoona VA Medical Center director William Mills, who was chased out of that hospital by a series of scandals.

Mills retired in September, and the hospital is looking for its third director this year.

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