Cliff Owen/AP

VA watchdog: 115-day wait at Phoenix veterans hospital

Inspector general substantiates ‘serious conditions,’ including 1,700 veterans awaiting care but not on wait list

Patients at the Phoenix veterans hospital waited on average 115 days for their first medical appointment, which is 91 days longer than the hospital reported, the Department of Veteran Affairs' internal watchdog said Wednesday (PDF).

Richard Griffin, the department's acting inspector general, reported that investigators had "substantiated serious conditions" at the Phoenix VA hospital, including 1,700 veterans awaiting care who were not on an official waiting list.

"We have substantiated that significant delays in access to care negatively impacted the quality of care at this medical facility," Griffin wrote in the report. "Most importantly, these veterans were and continue to be at risk of being forgotten or lost in Phoenix [Health Care System]’s convoluted scheduling process. As a result, these veterans may never obtain a requested or required clinical appointment."

The inspector general said that a sample of 226 veterans waited on average 115 days for their first primary care appointment at Phoenix-area clinics, far higher than the 24-day average that was falsely reported by the Phoenix VA and the department's 14-day goal.

The report said the inspector general is studying allegations that delays in appointments resulted in patient deaths. It said conclusions on that question won't be reached until after investigators analyze medical records, death certificates and autopsy results.

VA doctors in Phoenix have said that some 40 veterans had died while waiting for appointments.

The news brought immediate calls for the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki from Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

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."

Miller also said Attorney General Eric Holder should conduct a criminal investigation into the Department of Veterans Affairs.

And McCain released a statement saying that "if Shinseki does not step down voluntarily then I call on the President of the United States" to call for his resignation.

Shinseki said in a release that he respected the VA watchdog's independent review, and that the report's findings are "reprehensible." He said he had ordered the Phoenix VA to "immediately triage" each of the 1,700 untreated veterans identified in the report to "bring them timely care."

“We will aggressively and fully implement the remaining OIG [Office of the Inspector General] recommendations to ensure that we contact every single Veteran identified by the OIG," Shinseki said. "I have directed the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) to complete a nationwide access review to ensure a full understanding of VA’s policy and continued integrity in managing patient access to care."

Shinseki made no mention of resigning from his post in his statement.

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America CEO Paul Rieckhoff issued a statement calling Griffin’s report “damning and outrageous” and asking for a criminal investigation. “The VA’s problems are broad and deep — and President Obama and his team haven’t demonstrated they can fix it.”

The report recommended that Shinseki take immediate action to provide care for the 1,700 veterans whose names were not on an official waiting list. Shinseki, the report added, should review existing waiting lists at Phoenix to identify veterans at greatest risk because of the appointment delays and provide appropriate care.

It also recommended that he initiate a nationwide review of veterans on VA wait lists to ensure they’re being seen in an appropriate amount of time given their conditions. Griffin also said his office has increased the number of VA health care facilities it is investigating to 42 nationwide.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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