COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - Three anonymous employees said they were told to manipulate appointment data at the Veterans Affairs clinic in Colorado Springs, the VA confirmed Tuesday.
Daniel Warvi, spokesman for VA hospitals and clinics in eastern Colorado, said the VA clinic in Grand Junction also is part of the investigation.
Warvi said that last month, the whistleblowers claimed they were told -- presumably by superiors -- to lie about how long patients waited for appointments for medical care, and to indicate that wait times were shorter than they actually were.
"We're investigating whether any of the claims are true," Warvi said. "We don't know if they (employees) are airing a grievance, or what. We'd like to talk more with them, but they decided to remain anonymous."
The investigation is the latest development in a nationwide scandal regarding long wait times for VA care, with patients complaining of waits lasting weeks or even months.
Local veterans expressed mixed feelings about the investigation.
"The waiting time just for an eye examination to see an ophthamologist is kind of ridiculous," said Ronald Roman, an Army veteran referring to his own experiences at the VA clinic. "So I feel for a lot of these veterans who are in very ill health."
Marine veteran John Trower agreed.
"(The VA) are covering themselves and making themselves look good," he said. "In my opinion, there's a lot of good doctors and nurses here who do help us. But I think that (VA) management, their belief is we're here for them -- they're not here for us."
However, Francis Swanner, who served in the Army and Navy, blames the problem on an overworked and understaffed VA -- and on veterans who often fail to show up for scheduled appointments.
"I've never had a long wait," he said. "This is not a walk-in clinic. This is an appointment-only clinic. A lot of vets think that you can just walk up here and just get an appointment just because they can't go anywhere else. That's just not true. That's not the way it works."
Warvi said the VA sent two top administrators to the Colorado Springs clinic after the claims surfaced, and so far have found no problems by staff after auditing half the appointments made. A systemwide audit in 2012 also found no problems, he said.
"What we'd like to know is did the employees mean they were told that before 2012, or after?" Warvi said.
The employees' claims also led the VA to spend two days retraining staff to schedule appointments as efficiently as possible, he said.
The current investigation resulted from an initial wider probe of approximately 80 VA facilities in Colorado, Wyoming and Montana. A new VA clinic that opened in Pueblo last fall is not part of the investigation.
"We are setting the standard," Warvi said. "We're far ahead of a lot of other VA clinics."
In a statement released Tuesday, Republican Congressman Doug Lamborn of Colorado expressed disappointment about the investigation and said if it determines that the employees' claims are true, the employees must be protected and the people responsible must be held accountable.
"The practices of data manipulation and obstruction of information must stop," Lamborn said. "The House Veterans Affairs Committee has detailed the dozens of times that the VA has withheld information from our Committee. These bureaucratic shell games have prevented us from doing the necessary oversight work that the American people expect."
Democratic Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado said the investigation and scandal are more proof of why he supports VA reform legislation and a change in leadership at the agency.