An independent review has determined that Department of Veterans Affairs officials falsified records to hide the amount of time former service members have had to wait for medical appointments, calling a crisis that arose in one VA hospital in Phoenix a “systemic problem nationwide.”
The inspector general’s report, a 35-page interim document, prompted new calls for VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki, a former general and Vietnam veteran, to resign. Some of the calls on Capitol Hill were from members of President Obama’s party, complicating what is already a political challenge for a president who has made veterans issues a legacy-defining priority after more than a decade of war.
The report found that 1,700 veterans using a Phoenix VA hospital were kept on unofficial wait lists, a practice that helped officials avoid criticism for failing to accommodate former service members in an appropriate amount of time.
A review of 226 veterans seeking appointments at the hospital in 2013 found that 84 percent had to wait more than two weeks to be seen. But officials at the hospital had reported that fewer than half were forced to wait that long, a false account that was then used to help determine eligibility for employee awards and pay raises.
The agency has made it a goal to schedule appointments for veterans seeking medical care within 30 days. But the interim IG report found that in the 226-case sample, the average wait for a veteran seeking a first appointment was 115 days, a period officials allegedly tried to hide by placing veterans on “secret lists” until an appointment could be found in the appropriate time frame.
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“We are finding that inappropriate scheduling practices are a systemic problem nationwide,” the report stated. “We have identified multiple types of scheduling practices not in compliance with VHA [Veterans Health Administration] policy.”
The initial findings were released as Obama delivered the commencement address at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. During the speech, as he did earlier this week in a surprise visit to troops in Afghanistan, Obama pledged to ensure that veterans receive proper care as they return from war. The report helps clarify allegations that have swirled around VA for weeks. White House officials said Obama had been briefed on its findings and found them “extremely troubling.”
Capitol Hill’s reaction was sharper. Several Republicans called for Shinseki’s resignation, including Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), a leading voice on military and foreign affairs; Rep. Jeff Miller (Fla.), who heads the House Veterans’ Affairs committee; and Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon (Calif.), who leads the House Armed Services Committee.
“Shinseki is a good man who has served his country honorably, but he has failed to get VA’s health care system in order despite repeated and frequent warnings from Congress, the Government Accountability Office and the IG,” Miller said in a statement released Wednesday, just hours before a congressional hearing on the allegations was set to begin. “What’s worse, to this day, Shinseki — in both word and deed — appears completely oblivious to the severity of the health-care challenges facing the department.”
The American Legion is the only veterans group calling on Shinseki to resign; others say they are closely monitoring the inquiry. The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America blasted the administration over the report. “Today’s report makes it painfully clear that the VA does not always have our veterans’ backs,” IAVA said.
Shinseki, who has been in the post since Obama’s first term, expressed outrage at the findings and noted that he launched an initiative last week to expand capacity at VA clinics and allow more veterans to obtain health care at private health centers.
“I have reviewed the interim report, and the findings are reprehensible to me, to this Department, and to Veterans,” he said in a statement. “I am directing that the Phoenix VA Health Care System (VAHCS) immediately triage each of the 1,700 Veterans identified by the OIG to bring them timely care.”
Miller joined a growing list of lawmakers who are asking the Justice Department to launch a formal criminal investigation.
McCain, who is on that list, said in a statement: “It is alarming that Secretary Shinseki either wasn’t aware of these systemic problems, or wasn’t forthcoming in his communications with Congress about them. Either way, it is clear to me that new leadership is needed at the VA.”
While several top congressional leaders have said Shinseki should remain in office to help address the sprawling department’s problems, a series of Democratic lawmakers also joined the calls for Shinseki’s resignation.
On Wednesday afternoon, Sen. Mark R. Udall (Colo.) became the first sitting Democratic senator to call for the resignation. He was soon joined by Sen. John Walsh (Mont.), Sen. Kay Hagan (N.C.), Sen. Al Franken (Minn.), Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.), and Rep. Scott Peters (Calif.), Rep. Bruce Braley (Iowa), Rep. Ron Barber (Ariz.), Rep. Tim Ryan (Ohio) and Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (N.H.).
At a news conference last week, Obama defended Shinseki but said that it is “a disgrace” if the allegations that dozens of veterans died because of improper scheduling practices are true.
On Wednesday, White House aides stressed that the president believes the issue of improper scheduling must be handled immediately and aggressively, stopping short of defending Shinseki.
“The president found the findings extremely troubling,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney. “The secretary has said that VA will fully and aggressively implement the recommendations of the IG. The president agrees with that action and reaffirms that the VA needs to do more to improve veterans’ access to care. Our nation’s veterans have served our country with honor and courage, and they deserve to know they will have the care and support they deserve.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who leads the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, called the inspector general’s findings “unacceptable” but didn’t call for Shinseki to step down. Instead, he urged Shinseki to immediately implement the inspector general’s recommendations and review whether VA’s goal of seeing patients within 14 days of a request is realistic.
The IG recommended that VA ensure appropriate care for the 1,700 veterans not on the official wait list, identify patients at the greatest risk from treatment delays and ensure that all veterans waiting for care appear on official lists.
The report did not say definitively whether the extended waits caused veteran deaths, but it noted that “significant delays in access to care negatively impacted the quality of care” at the Phoenix clinic.
Three VA officials appeared Wednesday evening at a previously scheduled hearing with the House Veterans Affairs’ Committee to explain the destruction of records officials had earlier speculated may have been the source of an alleged “secret” list in Phoenix.
VA health official Thomas Lynch testified that the list was an “interim work product” that the clinic used to help reschedule patients whose appointments had been canceled. He acknowledged that VA destroyed the records between mid-2012 and late 2013, saying federal guidelines required the action to protect private patient information once it was no longer needed for rebooking.
VA congressional liaison Joan Mooney told the panel that VA leaders care deeply about their mission and view the facts of the IG report as “totally reprehensible.” She added that they would take their responsibility to address the findings seriously.
The IG report stated that use of improper scheduling practices is not new among VA facilities and that, since 2005, the inspector general has issued 18 reports identifying scheduling problems, some resulting in lengthy wait times and having a negative impact on patient care.
In 2010, VA identified 17 inappropriate scheduling schemes that its clinics used, including faking appointment cancellations and rescheduling them to hide extended treatment delays. The agency warned its medical centers in a memo that year that the practices would “not be tolerated.”
The IG’s office is continuing its review of VA clinics nationwide. Its report Wednesday noted that the probe includes deploying “rapid response teams” that make unannounced visits to VA medical facilities to address the recent allegations of inappropriate scheduling practices as well as long-standing ones.
Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.