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VA: 18 veterans left off wait list died

Revelation comes as bipartisan agreement reached on bill allowing veterans to get treatment outside VA hospitals

In a new revelation in the growing Veterans Affairs scandal, the organization's acting head said Thursday that an additional 18 veterans whose names were kept off an official electronic VA appointment list have died.

Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson said that he would ask the inspector general to see if there is any indication those deaths were related to long wait times. Gibson added that the 18 deaths were in addition to the 17 reported last month.

Gibson said he would personally reach out to the veterans’ families.

Gibson's remarks during a visit to Phoenix, Arizona, were the latest related to the scandal over long patient waits for care and falsified records covering up the delays at VA hospitals and clinics nationwide.

Gibson's announcement came as senior senators reached agreement Thursday on the framework for a bipartisan bill making it easier for veterans to get health care outside VA hospitals and clinics.

The 18 veterans who died were among 1,700 veterans identified in a report last week by the VA's inspector general as being "at risk of being lost or forgotten." The investigation also found broad problems with delays in patient care and manipulation of waiting lists throughout the sprawling VA health care system, which provides medical care to about 9 million veterans and family members.

Richard Griffin, the VA's acting inspector general, told a Senate committee three weeks ago that his investigators had found 17 deaths among veterans awaiting appointments in Phoenix. Griffin said in his report last week the dead veterans' medical records and death certificates as well as autopsy reports would have to be examined before he could say whether any of them were caused by delays in getting appointments.

The Senate plan announced Thursday was quickly put together to address a crisis that has embarrassed the Obama administration and worried lawmakers in the run-up to November's mid-term elections.

If passed, it would allow veterans more access to private doctors and give the VA new authority to open 26 clinics, hire more doctors and nurses and fire poor-performing staff.

It was reached after rare bipartisan negotiations led by Senator John McCain, a Republican, and Bernard Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats.

The scandal over widespread schemes to mask the long delays prompted allegations from VA doctors in Phoenix that 40 veterans had died while waiting for appointments at VA facilities there. Last week, it brought the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki.

Obama announced on May 30 that Shinseki, a retired four-star Army general, had indicated he did not want to be a “distraction” amid his department’s rushed efforts to solve problems.

When asked by a reporter if Shinseki had fallen victim to scapegoating, Obama responded that the decision to resign had been Shinseki’s. However, he acknowledged “the distractions [Shinseki] refers to in part are political." Obama said he would continue to work to root out the problems. But he said it would be up to the Justice Department to determine whether there had been any criminal wrongdoing.

Shinseki’s replacement, Gibson, told reporters in Phoenix that VA staff in recent days had contacted 1,700 veterans whose names appeared on secret waiting lists for care and found that 18 of them had already died.

Gibson said some of the 18 had initially contacted the VA for "end of life care" but he added that it was "inexcusable" that so many veterans were left languishing on a secret waiting list and vowed change.

"This is not what our veterans deserve; this will not stand," said Gibson, who joined the VA in February. "I will not be part of some effort to maintain the status quo here."

Sanders, who chairs the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said lawmakers from both parties are "appalled" by the delays and cover-ups in Phoenix and elsewhere.

Patients at the Phoenix veterans hospital waited an 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 in late May (PDF).

"We have a crisis on our hands and it is imperative that we deal with that crisis," Sanders said on the Senate floor.

The proposed legislation, targeted for a Senate vote next week, would authorize leases for 26 new major clinics in 18 states and use $500 million in leftover funds to hire new VA doctors and nurses to speed veterans' access to care.

In a two-year pilot project, veterans would be able to seek outside health care at VA expense if they experience long wait times for appointments or if they live more than 40 miles (64 km) from a VA hospital or clinic.

Sanders said the VA would determine the appropriate wait time trigger, but added that it may be longer than the agency's now-abandoned 14-day goal.

The bill would allow the immediate firing of VA executives responsible for the cover-ups and other deficiencies. It would offer them the opportunity to appeal within seven days, with a final decision due within 21 days.

The U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC), an independent watchdog agency, said on Thursday it was probing 37 allegations that VA whistle blowers who disclosed poor scheduling practices were unfairly disciplined.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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