(KMSP) - Iraq War veteran Jose Zamora wanted to see if he could schedule an appointment with his primary care provider, but every time he arranged a visit, it would end up being changed. What Zamora didn't tell the scheduling office is he already knew the appointment was never going to happen.
His provider informed him she was no longer available to see patients. But the VA, he says, never disclosed it and instead kept rebooking his visit.
"Why would you hinder my health, instead of saying 'Here's the thing, she's not going to be back,’” Zamora said.
Zamora wonders if what happened to him is a deliberate effort by the VA to cover up staffing shortages that threaten to compromise health care for veterans. Another vet who was a patient of the same provider as Zamora shared a similar scheduling story with the Fox 9 Investigators.
“Those are the types of stories that just make me livid,” said Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.).
In fact, it prompted the congressman to send a letter to VA headquarters in Washington, asking the Office of Inspector General to take a deeper look at what we uncovered. This audio recording we obtained of a 2009 medical staff meeting is what really grabbed the congressman's attention. You can hear doctors warning managers that the system in St. Cloud is dangerously overloaded with patients. They accuse management of hiding the fact that doctors are treating way more patients than is safe by creating so called "ghost panels."
The doctors believe management was purposely assigning patients to "ghost panels" to make it appear on paper that the rest of the staff's workload wasn't so outrageous.
"That sounds like what happened to me a couple times,” Zamora said.
A spokesman for the St. Cloud VA says "there are no ghost panels" there. He says Zamora's experience of being rescheduled 3 times over 4 months "was due to circumstances beyond anyone's control."
Congressman Walz says there will be an investigation to get to the bottom of the ghost panel issue. He says the VA's Inspector General will look to see if managers have distorted the true number of patients being assigned to doctors.
"If those are not accurate I think all kinds of bad things can happen,” Walz said. “Mistrust in the system, delayed appointments, and, worst-case scenario, not getting care."
The investigation, according to the congressman, will first look for evidence of ghost panels at VA's in the Upper Midwest, but depending on what's found, could eventually go nationwide.