$900,000 study’s hired actors clogged VA health system with phony maladies
A Veterans Administration researcher used actors and pressured veterans into participating in a “secret shopper”-style project, and now the House Veteran Affairs Committee is investigating how the agency spent $900,000 for the faked study.
The head of the study, Dr. Saul Weiner, professor of medicine, pediatrics and medical education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, admitted actors were hired to portray veterans, according to a letter from the committee chairman, Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo.
“The actors wore hidden microphones to capture the physician-patient interaction; feigned symptoms that took real appointment slots from veterans and tied up facility resources, such as lab tests, while health-care professionals sought answers to the actor’s fake maladies,” Coffman said.
The letter was directed to Carolyn Clancy, the interim under secretary for health at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Wiener was approved a grant of at least $900,000 for a study “to improve staff and provide attention to veterans’ individual circumstances and needs … when assisting them or planning their care,” according to the June 3 letter from Coffman.
The study, described as akin to a “secret shopper” program where people anonymously rate a business’ service, was supposed to measure the effectiveness of the interaction between VA doctors and their patients during appointments. The goal was to make doctors’ visits more patient-centered. Actors posing as patients presented themselves with made-up maladies and secretly recorded their interaction with the doctors for analysis.
In the letter, Coffman addressed many unusual and troubling aspects of the study.
For one thing, he reported, VA physicians “were forewarned that ‘patients’ would be ‘wired’ in order to capture the physician-patient dialogue.”
And when veterans voiced concerns “about the misuse of resources,” Weiner “purportedly began enlisting actual veterans from facility waiting rooms.”
“According to complaints filed with the local union, some veterans did not want to participate, but in at least one instance, a veteran was badgered at least four times to do so.”
Coffman said veterans “noted concerns that, if they did not participate, they would be ‘flagged’ as uncooperative and might be retaliated against by the facility.”
“In these instances, those veterans who did participate alerted the physician by handwritten note that they were being recorded during the physician-patient interaction. Apparently, none of the veterans used in this study signed a consent form to participate.”
Written by Michael Volpe
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