For the past two weeks, some veterans have been complaining that they have been unable to schedule medical appointments at a busy Veterans Administration (VA) outpatient clinic in Hackensack, New Jersey, The Public Record has learned.
The problem? The automated phone system veterans’ dial into disconnects their calls when they are prompted to press a digit in order to connect with the right office.
“Every time I call I get disconnected. I have diabetes and started a new medicine three week ago and have not been feeling right, but when I call I can’t even as much as talk to a nurse. I just get disconnected when I call for assistance. I can’t believe this!” said one veteran, who requested anonymity because he fears VA officials would destroy his paperwork if he reveals his identity.
The Hackensack outpatient clinic serves thousands of veterans and receives hundreds of calls per day. Remarkably, employees there had no idea that their phone system wasn’t working and only learned about the problems after inquiries from The Public Record.
Sandy Warren, a spokeswoman for the VA New Jersey Healthcare System, said the clinic hasn’t received any complaints from veterans about their inability to schedule an appointment. But when she looked into the matter she confirmed that the phone system has not been working and chalked up the issue to a technical glitch.
“We have had our telephone people working on it and they are still working on it,” Warren said Thursday. “There are bugs in the system. We weren’t aware of this issue. So we appreciate you bringing it to our attention.”
Warren said she believes part of the problem is due to the fact that clinic employees are supposed to “log into the system” and “some of the clerks were having difficulty.”
“We trained the clerks today,” Warren said. “We did some reeducation today. Hopefully, this problem will be solved after some troubleshooting.”
By the time this report was published, however, the technical problems plaguing the clinic’s phone system were still not resolved. The Public Record called the Hackensack VA clinic a dozen times, dialed extensions when prompted to do so and we were disconnected each time.
The Public Record made follow-up queries and the VA Healthcare System in New Jersey responded by posting a message on its main website:
We are experiencing intermittent incoming telephone problems with our telephone carrier and we are working with them in correcting the situation. If you call in the future and are unable to get through or are getting a constant ringing with no answer, please hang up and dial 908-647-0180 and when connected then dial 1 and the four-digit extension you are trying to reach. We apologize for the inconvenience and hope to have our carrier resolve this problem soon.
Warren said veterans who can’t get through to the Hackensack clinic can call a supervisor directly at 201-342-7632.
This is not a trivial matter. For veterans, especially those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, the inability to swiftly obtain the assistance of a mental health care professional can be the difference between life and death.
Army veteran Joseph Hickman, a former Guantanamo guard who now works with veterans on behalf of the New Jersey law firm Denbeaux & Denbeaux, told The Public Record he has been trying to calm a handful of veterans who have lost patience.
“I have been trying for a week to make a first time appointment at the VA clinic in Hackensack for a combat veteran who lost his leg and eyesight. You just cannot get through to anyone. This is really a disgrace,” Hickman said.
The issue is just the latest to engulf the Veterans Administration, which has been beset by a series of scandals involving numerous clinics nationwide. Last April, CNN reported that 40 veterans died while waiting for appointments at a Phoenix, Arizona VA healthcare facility. The shocking revelations lead to the resignation of Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki and are now the subject of an FBI investigation and congressional probes.
An internal audit conducted by the VA’s watchdog concluded that there were widespread problems at VA clinics around the country that saw employees manipulating schedules, concealing delays in medical care and maintaining secret lists.
That includes the VA’s New Jersey Healthcare System, which, according to a chart created by USA Today, based on the VA statistics, found that 8.6 percent of the employees there were told falsify appointment data.