ST. PETERSBURG - New controversy surrounds the Veterans Affairs hospital in Pinellas County.
We're hearing for the first time from a former employee who says he was forced to lie to make it look like the hospital was meeting performance goals.
“When I worked for the VA, I was a clerk," said a former employee we’ll call “Joe.”
Joe says he went to work at the C.W. Young Bay Pines VA Hospital in Pinellas County after returning from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“My job was to make and schedule appointments,” Joe said.
He claims that within days of starting his job, his supervisor taught him how to change information in the appointment scheduling system so it would appear that the hospital was meeting the VA's national goals.
“It was very overt. There was nothing concealed about it. It was very open,” he said.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki was forced to resign after a White House-ordered audit confirmed a "systemic lack of integrity" in which 60 percent of veterans hospitals participated in manipulating wait times.
Joe says the numbers at Young Bay Pines were altered on a daily basis at the request of supervisors.
“It was find your name on this list on the excel document, go in and change your appointment to meet the 14-day window,” Joe said.
In describing how he was asked to change appointment windows, Joe said that when a veteran came in wanting the next available appointment, a clerk would hit a key on a computer which showed the next available date.
“If the next available appointment was 127 days away, then they would back out of that function of scheduling and put 126 days from today is when the patient wants to be seen,” Joe says.
Technically, that veteran would be seen within one day of his “requested” appointment even though he had asked to be seen immediately.
The Young Bay Pines Hospital has had documented backlogs for more than a decade.
The I-Team discovered transcripts of a Congressional hearing that show in 2002 there were more than 14,000 veterans who had waited longer than six months for initial appointments.
“It was happening in '09 when I was there. I know it was happening heavily in 2011,” Joe said.
Inspector General reports from 2012 say long wait times at the Young Bay Pines Hospital may have contributed to multiple suicides among veterans seeking mental health care.
While Joe believes the scandals will eventually lead to reforms, he fears there will be long-term consequences for many of those who have borne the battle.
“The worst is distrust. The worst is that veterans don't want to come to the hospital because it's more trouble than it's worth. It's easier to be sick than to come to the hospital,” he said.
The Young Bay Pines VA hospital was among more than 110 VA facilities that will undergo additional review as the result of a recent audit of appointment wait times.