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1,700 veterans 'at risk of being lost or forgotten' in Phoenix; 42 centers under investigation

By Donna Cassata

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, May 28 2014 7:38 p.m. MDT

This April 28, 2014 file photo show the Phoenix VA Health Care Center in Phoenix. Fake appointments, unofficial logs kept on the sly and appointments made without telling the patient are among tricks used to disguise delays in seeing and treating veterans at Veterans Affairs hospitals and clinics. They’re not a new phenomenon. VA officials, veteran service organizations and members of Congress have known about them for years.

Ross D. Franklin, Associated Press

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.

"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" some 1,700 VA health facilities nationwide, including 151 hospitals and more than 800 clinics.

Griffin said 42 centers are under investigation, up from 26.

Three Senate Democrats facing tough re-election contests — 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.

The agency has a 14-day target for seeing patients after they ask for appointments. 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 the provider wanted to see the veteran or the veteran wanted 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.

The IG's report said problems identified by investigators were not new. The IG's office has issued 18 reports to George W. Bush and Obama administrations as well as Congress since 2005.

Griffin said investigators' next steps include determining whether names of veterans awaiting care were purposely omitted from electronic waiting lists and at whose direction and whether any deaths were related to delays in care.

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