HONOLULU - U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard called for Hawaii's top Veterans Affairs health care official to be fired Friday, saying he was dishonest with the public about wait times for veterans trying to get medical appointments.
Wayne Pfeffer, director of the VA Pacific Islands Health Care System, told The Associated Press that he will not step down but apologized for any misunderstanding about how long veterans wait.
An internal audit released Monday by the federal Department of Veteran Affairs said new patients in Hawaii wait an average of 145 days - nearly five months - to see a primary care physician, the longest wait by far in the nation.
Gabbard said she and other members of Hawaii's congressional delegation were misled when they recently met with Pfeffer about wait times and were led to believe that wait times were much shorter.
Gabbard wrote a letter Friday to Sloan Gibson, acting secretary of Veterans Affairs, asking Gibson to take immediate action.
In the letter, Gabbard explained that she met with Pfeffer on June 5. At that meeting, Pfeffer told Gabbard and others that the wait time for newly registered veterans to get an appointment with a primary care physician was around 30 days, she said. But after the audit was released reporting much longer wait times, she asked Pfeffer about the discrepancy and he denied ever discussing wait times at the June 5 meeting with congressional staff, Gabbard said.
"This blatant display of dishonesty undermines the nature of public service," Gabbard said in her letter to Gibson. "Additionally, it reflects an arrogant disregard for our veterans, and being held accountable to the American people."
Pfeffer told the AP that he knew before the audit was released that veterans sometimes waited 100 days or more for their first appointment.
"I didn't know it would say 145 days on the report. It varies every day," Pfeffer said in an interview. "I knew it was in that range, but I wasn't sure what date the report was going to use."
Pfeffer said he told congressional staffers that the wait was about 50 days, but he was referring to the wait time for veterans once the VA called them back to set an appointment.
"I tried to explain what I could, maybe I wasn't clear enough, but I certainly wasn't trying to deceive her," Pfeffer said. "I knew the information was coming out on Monday, so it wouldn't have made any sense to mislead her."
Pfeffer has been on the job for eight months, he said.
U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz also was at the June 5 meeting and was troubled by the discussions.
"There's two ways to look at this," Schatz said. "One is that they knew about the wait times but failed to tell us, and the other is that they didn't know about the wait times. Either way, that's deeply problematic."
Schatz called on the Office of the Inspector General within the Department of Veterans Affairs to investigate the Hawaii VA after he received multiple complaints alleging that staff of the VA hospital were instructed to delete information from their computers about wait times. The complaints came from both inside and outside the VA, Schatz said.
"These were very detailed complaints," Schatz said. "They were credible in my view, and I take them very seriously. But again it's for the inspector general to complete a thorough investigation."
Schatz did not call for Pfeffer's resignation. He instead said he wants to see the results of an investigation.
Pfeffer said the allegations didn't really make sense, because all the information his schedulers enter into the computer is automatically saved in a national database.
"I wish he would contact me or send me specifics on who might be doing it," Pfeffer said. "I'm certainly not doing that, and I don't believe my top staff is doing that. But if somebody in the ranks is doing that, I want to know it and take appropriate action."
U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa said the priority now should not be on pointing fingers but on addressing problems at the VA and getting veterans the services they're entitled to.
Yet she said that unspecified "immediate action" would be called for if "disturbing" allegations about manipulating records are true.
The congresswoman said in a statement that she called for a report on the VA's Hawaii operations in April but hasn't yet received a response.