WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs inspector general said Wednesday that an ongoing investigation into long wait times, falsified records and veteran deaths has so far confirmed that “inappropriate scheduling practices are systemic throughout” the agency’s health care system.
Specifically, the IG found that 1,700 veterans — 54 percent — who were waiting for primary care at the Phoenix VA hospital at the center of a national scandal had actually not been added to official electronic wait lists, according to an interim report published on the agency’s website.
By not adding the patients to the wait list, the staff at the hospital significantly understated wait times and boosted job performance evaluations, which was connected to employee awards and salary increases, the IG reported.
The VA is now engulfed by a scandal that began in April when a whistleblower alleged the Phoenix VA hospital had an off-the-books waiting list that might have led to 40 patient deaths. Similar reports have surfaced in at least 10 other states, angering veterans and triggering a string of bills in Congress aimed at punishing VA wrongdoing.
“Most importantly, these veterans were and continue to be at risk of being forgotten or lost in Phoenix HCS’s convoluted scheduling process,” the report noted. “As a result, these veterans may never obtain a requested or required clinical appointment.”
The IG examined a sample of 226 veterans at the Phoenix facility and found they waited on average 115 days for their first primary care appointment — 84 percent waited more than the 14 days required by the a recently enacted VA rule, which was meant to improve access to care and reduce wait times.
However, it is not yet clear whether the wait times and irregularities in the Phoenix hospital electronic wait list led to veteran deaths in Phoenix, as a whistleblowing doctor has claimed.
The IG said it is also looking into allegations of improper hiring practices, sexual harassment and bullying at the Arizona facility.
Meanwhile, its investigation has expanded to various other VA facilities, which constitute the largest integrated health care system in the United States, serving 200,000 veterans each day.
“To date, we have ongoing or scheduled work at 42 VA medical facilities and have identified instances of manipulation of VA data that distort the legitimacy of reported waiting times,” according to the interim report, which was issued after urging from Congress. A final report is expected to be completed by August.
The interim report came hours before VA executives were scheduled to testify before the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, which has criticized the agency’s response to its subpoena of records related to the Phoenix scheduling irregularities.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the VA committee, said the IG has now confirmed the allegations and suspicions of wrongdoing that have swirled for the past month.
“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 released statement.
Miller called for a criminal probe into the VA scandal and the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, who has been harshly criticized for severe problems in veterans’ health care.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., had stood by Shinseki while the IG report was being conducted. But by Wednesday afternoon, McCain’s position evolved.
“This keeps piling up, and it can’t be just an isolated — the Phoenix VA is not an island,” McCain said on CNN. “I think it’s time for Gen. Shinseki to move on.”
“General Shinseki has given his life to serving this country and for that, we are in his debt,” added House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard P. "Buck" McKeon.
“However, the problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs have grown beyond what this nation can bear. …It would be best if General Shinseki stepped down as Secretary, both as an example for other VA leaders and to lay the groundwork for new leadership to meet with success."
And the founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Paul Rieckhoff, who had declined to join the American Legion in calling for Shinseki to step down, sent out a new release:
“The new IG report on the Phoenix VA is damning and outrageous. It also reveals the need for a criminal investigation. Each day we learn how awful things are in Phoenix and across the country. The VA’s problems are broad and deep - and President Obama and his team haven’t demonstrated they can fix it.”
Stars and Stripes editor Patrick Dickson contributed to this report.