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The Spokane VA hospital faces "further review" as officials take on lengthy wait lists

Newly released audit figures from the Department of Veterans Affairs show that nearly 1,600 local patients remain on waiting lists at Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center in Spokane because they cannot be scheduled for appointments in the next three months — more than the number of similar patients waiting at Seattle's VA Puget Sound facilities, which handle three times as many appointments.

VA officials report more than 57,000 veterans remain on wait lists nationwide as the department reacts to public outrage over widespread treatment delays and scheduling fraud that may have resulted in patient deaths. Investigators recently interviewed approximately 3,772 VA employees at 731 facilities across the country, finding that 13 percent of staff had been instructed to manipulate appointment dates.

"This behavior runs counter to VA's core values," the national audit report states. "The overarching environment and culture which allowed this state of practice to take root must be confronted head-on."

The audit report, released Monday, lists Spokane as one of the 112 VA facilities requiring "further review" of scheduling practices and care performance. Overall, the Spokane center's wait time averaged just 1.26 days for established patients and 28.55 days for new patients, comparable to other centers, but it's unclear whether those times factor in the 1,593 patients on the local wait list.

Audit records show 412 Spokane patients who have spent more than 120 days on the local "Electronic Wait List," which tracks appointment delays. National records list just five medical centers with more patients who have waited that long.

Spokane also had by far the longest regional wait time for providing mental health services to established patients, averaging a six-day wait for appointments. New patients here wait about 27 days for appointments.

Those wait times appear to be reflected in a separate VA performance database, called Strategic Analytics for Improvement and Learning, that tracks patient outcomes by hospital. The Spokane center fell below national averages on mental health waiting periods.

The SAIL database also states that Mann-Grandstaff reports one of the highest "acute care" 30-day mortality rates in the country.

Much of the national criticism of the VA system stems from allegations that officials with the Phoenix VA Hospital may have manipulated appointment schedules to hide treatment delays linked to patient deaths. The director of the Phoenix hospital, Sharon Helman, previously managed the Spokane center from 2008 to 2010. Helman has been placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of the ongoing investigation.

The Inlander sent Spokane VA officials several questions regarding the new audit findings. While officials acknowledged receipt of the questions, they failed to provide any answers by press time the following day. Spokane VA spokesman Bret Bowers recently defended the center's care practices in an email, saying staff work to comply with national guidelines on timely care.

"The Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center would like to recognize and thank all Veterans for their service," he wrote. "VA's mission of taking care of America's Veterans is something all employees and volunteers take very seriously." ♦

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