MINNEAPOLIS - Employees at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center were pressured to falsify patient appointment dates and medical records in order to hide serious delays, potentially comprising the health of veterans, according to former employees, internal emails and a complaint filed to the VA's office of the Inspector General.
In some cases, the employees say they were instructed to falsify medical records by writing that patients had declined follow-up treatments when, in reality, they say the veterans had never been contacted.
Patient's lives may be at risk, they fear, because they say some cases involved suspected colon cancer.
"Some of them were getting missed altogether," said Heather Rossbach, a former VA worker.
Until recently, Rossbach was a medical support assistant and Letty Alonso was a supervisor in the Minneapolis VA's gastroenterology department.
"I feel like they need to be exposed for what's really going on," Alonso said.
In an exclusive interview, the women told KARE 11 investigative reporter A.J. Lagoe they were abruptly fired after trying to alert top VA administrators about the problems.
"I have family members that are veterans. They should know actually what's going on at the VA," Rossbach told KARE 11 reporter Lagoe.
"Do you think lives were being put at risk," Lagoe asked? "Yes, yes," both Rossbach and Alonso said.
As the VA scandal unfolded nationally, local officials denied there were secret wait lists in Minneapolis.
In a recent interview, we asked Patrick Kelly, the director of the Minneapolis facility, about the issue.
"Have there been allegations or have you seen evidence of that here in Minneapolis," Lagoe asked Kelly.
"No. I am not aware and I do not believe there are any wait lists in use here in Minneapolis. None have been uncovered," Kelly said.
But Rossbach and Alonso tell a different story, even though they admit, they are not proud of what they were instructed to do.
"You knew this was wrong," asked Lagoe.
"Yes, I did," said Alonso.
"I needed my job. I had to do what they told me," Rossbach said.
The women say their gastroenterology department was in charge of scheduling colonoscopies to detect cancer and follow-up care if a doctor spotted problems. Important follow-ups, too often delayed.
"I caught one with bleeding 46 days with no action whatsoever," Alonso said.
To keep evidence of delays in Minneapolis out of VISTA , the VA's official electronic record tracking system, the women claim a supervisor ordered them to keep a secret patient waiting list.
"They had this list they kept that was kinda hidden," Rossbach told KARE 11.
"Just so it couldn't be audited. It wouldn't even be in the system at all," Alonso added.
"You were directly instructed to cook the books?" Lagoe asked.
"Yes," Alonso replied.
Similar problems have occurred other VA hospitals, sometimes with fatal results.
The VA's Office of Inspector General investigated "delays in care" in the gastroenterology department at Dorn VA Medical Center in Columbia, South Carolina, including cases of "malignancies."
A report issued in April found similar delays contributed to deaths at a dozen other VA facilities nationwide. In all, it says, "23 (patients) have passed away."
But in their official complaint to the VA's Office of Inspector General, the Minneapolis women claim the cover-up here went far beyond secret waiting lists. They say they were actually ordered to falsify patient records - told to write down that veterans had refused treatment, when they had not even been contacted.
"Let's say right now you had a positive polyp, I would turn around and sometimes instructed by manager say, 'notified patient, patient didn't want further treatment," Alonso explained.
"And that wouldn't be true?" Lagoe asked.
"No," Alonso said.
"The patient wouldn't even know?" Lagoe asked.
"Nope. The reality was the patient has not even been notified of the appointment," said Alonso.
A report issued just a few weeks ago says something similar happened at a VA hospital in Georgia. The Office of Inspector General found "more than 600 patients" had their cases "improperly batch closed" - the VA's way of saying they were closed in bulk - without being seen.
Before contacting KARE 11, Alonso says she tried to warn top VA managers.
"It's not like I just sat there and did nothing about it," she told us. "I tried."
Internal emails seem to back her claim.
On May 27, Ernest Jones, Alonso's mentor at the VA, thanks VA patient advocate Michael Rosecrans and the chief of staff, Dr. Kent Crossley, for "listening to Ms. Alonso's issues" including "consults are delayed and remain undone" that could involve "life threatening issues."
A week later, in another email Jones writes, "One of the patients was noted as having cancer symptoms. You sure as hell better hurry and do something or have some(thing) done ASAP."
"How high up did you take this," Lagoe asked Alonso.
"All the way to the director," she replied.
In an email dated June 4, Jones tells Alonso, "I called Mike and he's going to tell the director so be prepared for smoke and fire."
When we showed the emails to director Patrick Kelly, he acknowledged Alonso did report problems.
"Allegations of consults being delayed or never being done. Did you know about this?" Lagoe asked director Kelly. "And, can you tell us what if anything was done?"
"I was aware that she had identified this as an issue to our patient advocate and our patient advocate and our chief of staff reviewed those," Kelly said.
So what happened?
The very next day, the VA hand-delivered a letter to Alonso saying she was being fired for what she calls trumped up charges.
Patrick Kelly says the timing was just a coincidence. He told us he can't discuss the details of Alonso's case, but says her claims about wait times were not verified.
"The allegation was unfounded. Unsubstantiated," Kelly told Lagoe.
"Were they fully investigated?" Lagoe asked.
"I'm certain that they were although I don't I can't tell you that I know specifically what they were," said Kelly.
Last month, our partners at USA Today uncovered internal VA documents exposing allegations of scheduling fraud similar to what Alonso and Rossbach describe. Federal officials considered the allegations serious enough to warrant further investigation at 109 VA Medical Centers across the country, including Minneapolis and Rochester.
That investigation is underway.
"Frankly I welcome the review," Kelly said. "I want to know what we're dealing with that will help me to address it more comprehensively.
It would be illegal for the women to show us copies of individual patient records. But they've already contacted federal investigators in Washington to report what they've seen, and tell them where to look.
"At the end of the day you had veterans completely falling through the cracks?" Lagoe asked the former workers.
"Yes. And I'm sure they still are," Rossbach said.
"Are there people out there right now that have medical tests showing they have cancer that don't know because they weren't notified?" Lagoe asked.
"Yes, yes," said both Rossbach and Alonso.
"It could be my dad, it could be anyone," Heather said.
The U.S. Office of Special Counsel is now investigating both women's claims that they were fired for blowing the whistle.
If you think you've been the victim of scheduling fraud at the Minneapolis VA or if you have inside information we want to hear from you. Please email the KARE investigative team at firstname.lastname@example.org.