Local VA director responds to lawmakers’ calls for firing

U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (File photo)

Hawaii’s Congressional delegation continues to turn up the heat against the current director of veterans’ health care in the islands.

On Friday, U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard went so far as to call for the firing of Wayne Pfeffer, director of the VA Pacific Islands Health Care System, after a recent audit found that when it comes to new patients, the average wait to see a primary care doctor on Oahu is 145 days — double the second longest wait time on the list.

“I’ve experienced personally being lied to by him and being given wrong information and denying that that wrong information was given in the first place,” Rep. Gabbard told KHON2. “There is zero tolerance for dishonesty, lies and incompetence for the people who have been charged with this privilege and responsibility of caring for our nation’s son’s and daughters.”

Gabbard went on to say that “this kind of incompetence at the highest levels for the Hawaii Veterans Health Administration is absolutely unacceptable — absolutely unacceptable.”

Despite calls for Pfeffer to be fired, the head of Hawaii’s U.S. Dept. of Veteran Affairs says he is not going anywhere.

KHON2 asked Pfeffer if he would resign in the wake of Gabbard’s call for him to be fired by the acting director of the VA.

“No. It’s all a misunderstanding,” said Pfeffer. “I believe that a lot of the things we are doing will be very beneficial and I think her passion for the veterans is very important to her and I want to win her confidence.”

Gabbard is not the only one with serious concerns with the way patients are being treated at the VA Medical Center. Sen. Brian Schatz, in a letter to Richard Griffin, VA acting inspector general, also outlined concerns constituents shared with him about the center.

Sen. Schatz told KHON2 that “one that concerns us the most is this allegation that the data is being manipulated… In other words, the wait times for individual veterans are actually worse than are currently reported to be.

“When people wait 145 days for the care they have been promised that has real consequences in their lives,” he added.

U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono also sent a letter to Griffin expressing her displeasure with the current administration at the Matsunaga medical center.

“I don’t dispute that number — 145 days is a very long time,” Pfeffer responded. “It’s very troubling. I’ve been here eight months and I didn’t have that number, but I know we had a lot of people waiting and I’ve been working to bring that number down before it became a national crisis.”

When asked to comment on the allegations in Schatz’s letter to the inspector general, Pfeffer said “that’s based on some allegations of gaming of the system… Since I’ve been here, I’ve been telling staff I’d rather look bad then get caught falsifying data.”

The director added that “I’ve asked that anyone that knows of anyone doing that, or has been told to that, to bring that forward.”

Pfeffer said he is doing three things now to improve care at the Hawaii center. He just hired a new associate chief of staff for primary care and increased capacity for the review of new cases.

Pfeffer is also working to see if there are qualified nurses with the necessary training who could assist in treating patients.

Gabbard’s fellow representative, Colleen Hanabusa, in response to the call for Pfeffer’s firing, said that instead “our goal right now should be to address the problems at the Veterans Affairs Pacific Islands Health Care System and get the veterans the services they are entitled to, not to point fingers. 

“I called for a report on operations at the Hawaii VA in April, as soon as allegations of severe delays at the Phoenix VA center came to light, and still have not received a response. We need clear answers. The local VA should be focused on providing us with the information we asked for, and needs to show a commitment to being more transparent,” Rep. Hanabusa said. “I intend to remain engaged with the Hawaii VA, to work with them to serve our veterans, and to continue to monitor their operations to ensure accountability. However, if the current disturbing allegations about manipulating records are true, immediate action will be called for.”

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