« Santas needed nationwide to visit medically fragile, homebound kids | Main | Almost half of the world's busiest airports have no-smoking policies »

VA took years to review complaints against doctors in some cases, watchdog says

Salwan Georges/The Washington Post via Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Veterans Affairs medical centers failed to report disciplinary action taken against doctors, which could have increased the risk that America’s veterans received “unsafe care,” according to a report released Monday by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The report found that complaints against doctors were not reviewed in a timely fashion, paperwork was not properly filed and doctors who had resigned to avoid disciplinary action were allowed to go work elsewhere without facing any consequences.

The government watchdog looked into five of the 170 VA medical centers across the country where concerns had been raised about 148 independent healthcare professionals. The report looked at complaints that had been made over a period of about three and a half years.

In the case of 16 doctors, the medical centers took months, even years, to start the review process, well after concerns about them were first raised.

The report also found that medical centers fell short of documenting their reviews of complaints, and five medical centers couldn’t provide the GAO with paperwork for nearly half of the 148 complaints they investigated.

If VA medical centers take disciplinary action against a doctor, it is the center’s responsibility to report the complaint to both state licensing boards (SLB) and the National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB), a database that prevents medical offices from unknowingly hiring a doctor with a history of poor performance.

The GAO report detailed what had happened in the cases of nine doctors who had either resigned to avoid disciplinary action or had actions taken against them for misconduct or work incompetence. Only one had been reported to the NPDB, and none of the doctors had been reported to state licensing boards, which could have suspended or revoked their license to practice.

In another case described in the GAO report, a medical center failed to report a doctor who had resigned to avoid disciplinary action. As a result, a non-VA hospital in the same city hired the doctor and ultimately was forced to take the same disciplinary action two years later because of the same issue.

But the GAO also noted that the medical centers “misinterpreted or were not aware” of the correct procedures for reporting a health care professional to the NPDB or SLB.

The report included the Department of Veterans Affairs’ response, which agreed with the findings.

In her response, Deputy Chief of Staff Gina Farrisee said that the VA would update its policies to meet the GAO’s recommendations by 2018.

The VA said it also plans to implement deadlines for reviews once a concern has been raised about a doctor, and provide more oversight of the review process in general.

The VA did not immediately respond to ABC News' request for comment.

Copyright © 2017, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

ABC News Radio