U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard is calling for Hawaii's top Veterans Affairs official to be fired.
Gabbard said Friday that Wayne Pfeffer has been dishonest with her and the public about wait times for veterans trying to get health care. Pfeffer is director of VA Pacific Islands Health Care System.
"In this urgent crisis, there should be zero tolerance for lies or misrepresentation about the dire situation our veterans are facing in Hawai'i," said Gabbard, a twice-deployed combat veteran. "I wrote to Acting VA Secretary [Sloan] Gibson today to share my serious concerns about the handling of information on wait times in Hawai'i, and the dishonest statements made to me and my office by local VA Pacific Islands Health Care System leadership. I have zero confidence that the current director of the VA PIHCS, Mr. Wayne Pfeffer, understands the severity of this problem, nor is he taking urgent action to address this crisis by expediting access to non-VA care for wait-listed veterans. He has been dishonest with me and the public, and has not been forthright or transparent with information."
Pfeffer didn't immediately respond to phone calls for comment. He has said he has been on the job for eight months.
An internal audit released Monday by the Department of Veteran Affairs says new patients in Hawaii wait an average of 145 days to see a primary care physician.
Gabbard says she was led to believe waits were much shorter.
The following is the full text of Gabbard's letter to Gibson:
June 13, 2014
The Honorable Sloan Gibson
Acting Secretary of Veterans Affairs
810 Vermont Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20420
Dear Acting Secretary Gibson,
I am writing to express my serious concerns regarding the leadership of the VA Pacific Islands Health Care System (PIHCS), Director Wayne Pfeffer. I request your serious consideration of the issues I'm raising, and ask that you take immediate action.
The VA PIHCS leadership recently provided information to me on new enrollee wait times, and implementation of the Accelerating Access to Care Initiative in the PIHCS. The information and responses I received from Mr. Pfeffer, a man with 40 years of VA service, were dishonest, lacked transparency, and showed a level of incompetence that should not exist in the VA. I request your immediate attention and action.
On June 5, 2014 members of my staff attended a quarterly update organized by the VA PIHCS. Mr. Pfeffer and senior representatives were present as well as staff from all Hawaii delegation members. My staff representative specifically asked for the current wait time for a newly registered veteran on the New Enrollee Appointment Request (NEAR) List before receiving an appointment with a Primary Care Physician.
Mr. Pfeffer replied explaining the differences between NEAR List and Electronic Wait List (EWL), and then stated the wait time for the NEAR List was "around 30 days." He then referred to a staff member from the Enrollments Department also at the briefing, who confirmed that the NEAR list wait time was between 30-50 days.
This was an inaccurate statement, based on the overwhelming number of constituent cases processed by my office last year on this issue, as well as in light of information released in the recent Veterans Affairs Access Audit.
On June 9, 2014 I spoke to Mr. Pfeffer to question him regarding the inconsistencies in the information he provided my staff in the prior week, and the numbers released in the Access Audit.
During our telephone conversation, Mr. Pfeffer denied ever discussing wait times for the NEAR list with congressional staff at the June 5th briefing.
This blatant display of dishonesty undermines the nature of public service. Additionally, it reflects an arrogant disregard for our veterans, and being held accountable to the American people.
Moreover, during our conversation I asked whether he was implementing the Accelerating Access to Care Initiative, and if so, what was the status in making sure veterans on wait lists were receiving immediate care.
Mr. Pfeffer replied that he "assumed" it was being implemented, but could provide no details whatsoever. It appeared he was not even aware of the initiative, or that the authority to implement resides at the facility level.
As the director, Mr. Pfeffer should possess a complete understanding of the VA’s strategy to implement this initiative, where that authority is executed, especially considering that Secretary Shinseki directed the initiative last month. Most importantly, he should have been aggressively taking action with this initiative to ensure long-waiting veterans were getting immediate access to care.
At the conclusion of our conversation, I requested additional information that Mr. Pfeffer was unable to provide. (1) I requested the exact number of new enrollees awaiting care at VA PIHCS – Mr. Pfeffer didn't know the exact number but estimated it to be in the 650 range; (2) the longest waiting time for a new enrollee; (3) the total number of veterans waiting for care; (4) and the measures taken to expedite the pre-approval process for maximizing non-VA care. To date, I have received no answers to any of these questions.
On June 9, 2014 a VA PIHCS representative emailed a response to my staff, stating that the EWL at Honolulu is currently 677 veterans – however, I was not provided with information that I requested concerning the NEAR list, the total number of newly enrolled veterans waiting for care, or the longest waiting time for a new enrollee.
Additionally, VA PIHCS stated that the EWL was reduced from approximately 1,800 in May, to 677 as of June 9, and suggested the EWL is expected to soon reach zero. I have serious doubts about how such a swift reduction in the EWL could have been possible.
These responses that my staff and I have received from the office of Director Pfeffer, and Mr. Pfeffer himself are reprehensible.
I have zero confidence or trust in Mr. Pfeffer’s ability to oversee the Pacific Island Health Care System, and I do not believe he deserves to be entrusted with the sacred privilege of caring for our veterans and their wellbeing.
As a Soldier, a veteran, and a member of Congress entrusted with the responsibility of serving the people of Hawaii and our nation, I demand accountability from those not executing their duties and violating the public trust.
Considering my recent encounters with Mr. Pfeffer, I say, without reservation - I have no confidence that he serves the best interest of my fellow veterans, nor do I feel as though he is competent to discharge his duties. The veterans of our state deserve far better, the taxpayers of our nation demand better, and I respectfully urge that you thoroughly review the root causes for the inefficiencies within the Pacific Islands Health Care System starting with its senior management. Mr. Pfeffer should be fired due to his dishonesty, lack of integrity, incompetence, and his flagrant lack of respect and transparency when dealing with those to whom he is ultimately accountable to – the American people and the veterans who defended freedom even when faced with certain peril.
If you require any additional information, I am available to assist you with whatever you need in honoring my requests.
Member of Congress