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Wednesday, May 28, 2014
Watchdog finds ‘systemic’ problems at VA
Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki speaks with the news media on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, May 15, 2014, after testifying before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing to examine the state of Veterans Affairs health care.AP
The official watchdog for the Department of Veterans Affairs claimed in a scathing report that the department has a "systemic" problem with clinics lying about patient wait times, as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle joined calls for Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign.
The VA Office of Inspector General released its interim report on Wednesday, as part of its ongoing probe into whether veterans died as a result of under-reported delays. While not reaching any conclusion on what led to those deaths, the office released troubling statistics regarding the embattled Phoenix VA facility suggesting workers under-stated wait-times in order to make their internal figures look good.
The office, in its preliminary findings, determined that veterans in Phoenix waited an average of 115 days for a primary care appointment -- far longer than the VA's official statistics showed. Such inappropriate scheduling tactics, according to the report, may be the basis for claims of "secret" waiting lists.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who until now had held off on urging Shinseki to resign, said during a press conference at his Phoenix office Wednesday afternoon that "it's time for Secretary Shinseki to step down" -- and that if he won't, "then I call on the president of the United States to relieve him of his duties, fire him."
The longtime senator and Vietnam veteran also called on the Justice Department to get involved, saying the allegations detail not just administrative issues, but "criminal problems."
On the heels of the report, Democrats also began to turn on Shinseki. Sens. Mark Udall, D-Colo., and John Walsh, D-Mont., both said Shinseki should step down. House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., also called for Shinseki to "resign immediately."
So far, President Obama has stood by his VA secretary, though the White House released a statement saying the president has been briefed on the findings and found them "extremely troubling." Shinseki released a statement on Wednesday calling the latest findings "reprehensible," but did not offer his resignation.
The report released Wednesday focused on the Phoenix VA facility, while noting that reviews at a "growing number" of facilities have exposed inappropriate scheduling practices throughout the VA system. According to the office, the investigation has now expanded to 42 VA medical facilities nationwide.
The IG's office released figures showing the Phoenix office "significantly understated" the amount of time patients waited for appointments.
"To date, our work has substantiated serious conditions at the Phoenix" center, the report said, claiming the delays have "negatively impacted the quality of care."
According to the IG's office, about 1,400 veterans awaiting a primary care appointment were appropriately included on the electronic wait-list -- but an additional 1,700 veterans waiting for an appointment were left off that list. The omission, the report warned, raises the risk that these veterans will be "forgotten or lost" in the "convoluted" Phoenix system.
Shinseki, in his statement, said he's ordered the Phoenix system to "immediately triage" each of the 1,700 veterans in order to "bring them timely care."
The IG's office also said VA national data had claimed patient wait times among a sample of Phoenix veterans typically was about 24 days. But the IG's own review found the average wait was actually 115 days.
The report would appear to substantiate allegations that clinics played around with the schedules to make it seem like patients were being seen sooner. The VA offices at Phoenix and several other locations have been accused of covering up the long waits by using improper scheduling tactics. About 40 veterans are said to have died while awaiting care in Phoenix.
Miller, whose committee is holding a hearing Wednesday evening where VA officials are slated to testify, also called for Attorney General Eric Holder to launch a criminal probe into the VA's "scheduling corruption" in light of the report.
"Today the inspector general confirmed beyond a shadow of a doubt what was becoming more obvious by the day: wait time schemes and data manipulation are systemic throughout VA and are putting veterans at risk in Phoenix and across the country," he said in a statement.