WASHINGTON – About 1,700 veterans in need of care were “at risk of being lost or forgotten” after being kept off the official waiting list at the troubled Phoenix veterans hospital, the Veterans Affairs watchdog said Wednesday in a scathing report that increases pressure on Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign.
The investigation, initially focused on the Phoenix hospital, found systemic problems in the VA’s sprawling nationwide system, which provides medical care to about 6.5 million veterans each year. The interim report confirmed allegations of excessive waiting time for care in Phoenix, with an average 115-day wait for a first appointment for those on the waiting list – 91 days longer than the hospital had reported.
“While our work is not complete, we have substantiated that significant delays in access to care negatively impacted the quality of care at this medical facility,” Richard J. Griffin, the department’s acting inspector general, wrote in the 35-page report. It found that “inappropriate scheduling practices are systemic throughout” the VA’s 1,700 health facilities nationwide, including 150 hospitals and 820 clinics.
Griffin said 42 centers are under investigation, up from 26.
Three Senate Democrats facing tough election campaigns – Colorado’s Mark Udall, Montana’s John Walsh and Kay Hagan of North Carolina – called for Shinseki to leave. “We need new leadership who will demand accountability to fix these problems,” Udall said in a statement.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee; Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and Arizona’s two Republican senators, John McCain and Jeff Flake, also called for Shinseki to step down. Miller and McCain also said Attorney General Eric Holder should launch a criminal investigation into the VA.
Miller said the report confirmed that “wait time schemes and data manipulation are systemic throughout VA and are putting veterans at risk in Phoenix and across the country.”
Shinseki called the IG’s findings “reprehensible to me, to this department and to veterans.” He said he was directing the Phoenix VA to immediately address each of the 1,700 veterans waiting for appointments.
Reports that VA employees have been “cooking the books” have exploded since allegations arose that as many as 40 patients may have died at the Phoenix VA hospital while awaiting care. Griffin said he’s found no evidence so far that any of those deaths were caused by delays.
VA guidelines say veterans should be seen within 14 days of their desired date for a primary care appointment. Lawmakers have called that target unrealistic and said basing employee bonuses and pay raises on it is outrageous. The 14-day waiting period encourages employees to “game” the appointment system in order to collect bonuses based on on-time performance, the IG report said.
The inspector general described a process in which schedulers ignored the date that a provider or veteran wanted for an appointment. Instead, the scheduler selected the next available appointment and used that as the purported desired date.
“This results in a false 0-day wait time,” the report said.