The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said on Monday that 121,305 veterans have either experienced long waits for health care appointments at VA facilities or not had appointments scheduled at all, the latest bad news for a department that has been chastised for its subpar treatment standards.
In an internal audit conducted from May 12 to June 3, the VA said it found that 57,436 new veteran patients had been waiting 90 days or more for an appointment. It also found that 63,869 patients over the past 10 years had requested appointments that have never been scheduled.
What's more, 13 percent of VA schedulers reported getting instructions from supervisors or others to falsify appointment dates in order to meet on-time performance goals. About 8 percent of schedulers said they used alternatives to an official electronic waiting list, often under pressure to make waiting times appear more favorable.
The agency said Monday it was abandoning a two-week scheduling goal for appointments after finding that it was "not attainable," given poor planning and growing demand for VA services. It called the 2011 decision by senior VA officials setting the 14-day goal and then basing bonuses on meeting the target "an organizational leadership failure."
Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson said the audit showed "systemic problems" that demand immediate action. VA officials have contacted 50,000 veterans across the country to get them off waiting lists and into clinics, Gibson said, and are in the process of contacting an additional 40,000 veterans.
The audit is the first nationwide look at the VA network in the uproar that began with reports two months ago of patients dying while awaiting appointments and of cover-ups at the Phoenix VA center.
Examining 731 VA hospitals and large outpatient clinics in more than 3,770 interviews, the audit found long wait times across the country for patients seeking their first appointments with both primary care doctors and specialists.
The controversy ultimately led to former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki’s resignation on May 30. Shinseki took the blame for what he decried as a "lack of integrity" in the sprawling system providing health care to the nation's military veterans.
Legislation is being written in both the House and Senate to allow more veterans, including those enrolled in Medicare or the military's TRICARE program, to get treatment from outside providers if they can't get timely VA appointments. The proposals also would make it easier to fire senior VA regional officials and hospital administrators.
A previous inspector general's investigation into the troubled Phoenix VA Health Care System found that about 1,700 veterans in need of care were "at risk of being lost or forgotten" after being kept off an electronic waiting list. While the investigation focused on Phoenix, it pointed to problems throughout the whole system.
The controversy over care of veterans could provide Republicans with an issue to criticize Democrats ahead of congressional elections in November. It is also a headache for President Barack Obama who had to accept the resignation of Shinseki and is actively seeking someone to replace him after the leading candidate pulled out, citing the prospect of a bitter confirmation hearing.
“This audit is absolutely infuriating, and underscores the depth of this scandal,” Paul Rieckhoff, CEO and founder of veteran assistance and advocacy group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said in a statement. “Our vets demand action and answers.”
Al Jazeera and wire services