U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski called on the Department of Veterans Affairs last week to conduct an independent investigation into the Alaska VA Healthcare System.
In a letter to the VA Office of Inspector General, Murkowski asked that the office review the Wasilla Community Based Outpatient Clinic's operational practices and also look into claims that the Alaska VA Healthcare System in Anchorage used fake appointments in 2008 to make wait times appear shorter.
Murkowski had inserted an amendment into the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs funding bill earlier this year for a Wasilla-specific report on the clinic's staff shortage with a due date of Feb. 1, 2015. Matthew Felling, Murkowski's press secretary, said that when the senator "saw how things were unraveling in the community morale-wise and frustration-wise" she wrote the letter to expedite the investigation.
This spring, the Wasilla clinic's only permanent physician resigned. Samuel Hudson, spokesman of the Alaska VA Healthcare System, said the clinic is utilizing three contracted physicians to staff the site, though their contracts are up on June 27, July 10 and August 28. They'll have the option to extend their stay, he said.
The VA, amid growing scandal, released a nationwide audit on June 9. The audit reported that at the Alaska VA Healthcare System in Anchorage, 99 percent of veterans could schedule appointments within 30 days. The audit looked at appointments from May 15 and did not include clinics in Fairbanks, Kenai, Juneau or Wasilla.
"We welcome the news that that audit showed tremendous work being done at the the Anchorage VA," Felling said. "At the same time, that basically is a snapshot of a moment in time and we want to make sure that that moment is sustained day in and day out."
Allegations that the Anchorage clinic falsified appointments stem from a former urologist. Dr. Jacqueline Brecht told The New York Times that administrators had instructed her to make phantom appointments at the Anchorage clinic in 2008. She objected at a staff meeting and soon after was put on administrative leave, according to the article published June 15.
"Regardless of whether the scheduling discrepancies Dr. Brecht alleges are still occurring, it is important that her allegations be thoroughly investigated and the outcome of that investigation be transparent to Alaska's veterans," Murkowski wrote.
Hudson did not respond to requests for comment on Murkowski's letter.
In an interview that aired on public radio station KSKA Wednesday, state VA officials acknowledged their struggle to retain and hire staff, though they disputed claims of appointment fraud.
"There was no phantom waiting list in 2008 and our recent audit also substantiated the fact that there is no phantom waiting list anywhere in the Alaska VA," said Greg Puckett, associate director with the Alaska VA Alaska Healthcare System.
U.S. Sen. Mark Begich sent a written statement Thursday that he was not surprised by the audit's findings that the Alaska VA Healthcare System met VA criteria, noting the partnerships the Alaska VA has formed with other hospitals and clinics to ease its patient wait list.
He wrote that the Alaska VA is not perfect, but has made progress. It is in less need of additional review than other VA health care facilities.
"I believe investigative resources need to be deployed to communities in the Lower 48 where hundreds are still languishing on electronic wait lists," he wrote.
Reach Tegan Hanlon at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4589.
By TEGAN HANLON