Veterans waited 115 days for care at Phoenix clinic, IG report finds

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Veterans were made to wait an average of 115 days for a primary care appointment at a Veterans Affairs facility in Phoenix, according to an independent watchdog.

The interim report from the VA inspector general confirmed recent allegations of delayed wait times for veterans seeking health care. [READ THE IG’S INTERIM REPORT.] 

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"Our reviews at a growing number of VA medical facilities have thus far provided insight into the current extent of these inappropriate scheduling issues throughout the VA health care system and have confirmed that inappropriate scheduling practices are systemic throughout VHA [Veterans Health Administration]," said Acting Inspector General Richard J. Griffin in the report.

Official data released by the clinic in Phoenix had claimed veterans waited just 24 days on average. The IG report said 1,700 veterans were put on an unofficial wait list at the facility.

"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 said. “As a result, these veterans may never obtain a requested or required clinical appointment.

"A direct consequence of not appropriately placing veterans on EWLs [Electronic Wait Lists] is that the Phoenix HCS leadership significantly understated the time new patients waited for their primary care appointment in their FY 2013 performance appraisal accomplishments, which is one of the factors considered for awards and salary increases," the report added.

Critics have alleged that long wait times have led to deaths at VA facilities around the country.

The report is only an initial finding, and the inspector general cautioned that the investigation was ongoing. 

"It is important to note that the information in this interim report is dynamic and changes may occur as our review progresses," the report said.

The report added that reviews had been opened at other clinics around the country. “Rapid Response Teams” had been deployed to conduct spot reviews of scheduling practices at facilities around the country.

“We are not providing VA medical facilities advance notice of our visits to reduce the risk of destruction of evidence, manipulation of data, and coaching staff on how to respond to our interview questions,” the report said. “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."

The inspector general vowed to provide any evidence of wrongdoing to authorities. 

“When sufficient credible evidence is identified supporting a potential violation of criminal and/or civil law, we have contacted and are coordinating our efforts with the Department of Justice,” the report said.

House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) called for VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign "immediately," saying that the report substantiated the charges of mismanagement. 

“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," Miller said in a statement.

"Shinseki is a good man who has served his country honorably, but he has failed to get VA’s health care system in order despite repeated and frequent warnings from Congress, the Government Accountability Office and the IG," he added. 

The chairman said Shinseki appears completely "oblivious" in "word and deed" to the healthcare challenges facing the department. 

"VA needs a leader who will take swift and decisive action to discipline employees responsible for mismanagement, negligence and corruption that harms veterans while taking bold steps to replace the department’s culture of complacency with a climate of accountability," he added. 

Miller also called for Attorney General Eric Holder to launch a criminal investigation into the VA's "widespread scheduling corruption." 

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) also called for Shinseki to step down. 

"I think it is time for General Shinseki to move on," he told CNN. 

This story was updated at 2:37 p.m.