The Department of Veterans Affairs is pictured May 17 in Phoenix. (Matt York / AP)
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More than 1,700 veterans were left off the official wait list for a primary care appointment at the Veterans Affairs Phoenix medical center, a purposeful omission that allowed hospital administrators to receive performance bonuses, the VA’s inspector general has found.
In an interim report into allegations of secret wait lists and subsequent patient deaths at the Phoenix VA facility, the department’s top investigator found “serious conditions at the Phoenix Health Care System,” including 1,400 veterans who did not have appointments but were on the facility’s electronic waiting list, as well as the 1,700 who have yet to be entered into the system.
“Since multiple lists we found were something other than the official electronic wait list, these additional lists may be the basis for allegations of creating ‘secret’ wait lists,” acting VA Inspector General Robert Griffin wrote.
Griffin’s report did not include information on his office’s investigation into whether the scheduling issues delayed diagnosis or care, or led to deaths.
He said the review needed to include a variety of records, such as VA and non-VA medical records, death certificates and autopsy results and his office has issued subpoenas where needed for the information.
For the initial investigation, the VA IG office reviewed a statistical sample of 226 appointments at Phoenix and found that the veterans waited an average of 115 days for their first primary care appointment, with 84 percent waiting more than 14 days.
VA national data showed these veterans waited on average 24 days for their first primary care appointment and only 43 percent waited more than 14 days.
“We recommend the VA secretary initiate a nationwide review of veterans on wait lists to ensure that veterans are seen in an appropriate time, given their clinical condition,” Griffin wrote.
He added that the IG will hand over the 1,700 names so VA can expedite their appointments.
“These veterans were and continue to be at risk of being forgotten or lost in Phoenix’s convoluted scheduling process,” Griffin said.
The preliminary findings are the first admission from federal officials that thousands of veterans were left waiting for medical care even as hospital administrators reported no problems finding appointments for their patients.
The report is likely to renew calls for swift action against Phoenix officials for covering up care delay problems, as well as accountability for officials higher up in VA. In the report, investigators said they do not believe the problem is in only Arizona.
“We are finding that inappropriate scheduling practices are a systemic problem nationwide,” they wrote.
Following release of the interim report, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki issued a statement describing the findings as “reprehensible” and said the department will “aggressively and fully implement the remaining OIG recommendations.”
“I am directing that the Phoenix VA Health Care System immediately triage each of the 1,700 Veterans identified by the OIG to bring them timely care,” Shinseki said.
He added that he does not plan to take further personnel actions against hospital administrators — three of whom were placed on administrative leave in April after news of the allegations broke — at the VA IG’s request.
The findings prompted several lawmakers to weigh in Wednesday afternoon, including Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., who called for VA Secretary Eric Shinseki‘s resignation and urged the Obama Administration to launch a criminal probe.
Miller previously had said he would wait for the IG’s findings before calling for senior leadership to step down.
“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,” Miller said. “It’s time for him to go.”
Miller said Attorney General Eric Holder should untertake a criminal investigation into the issues. His call for Justice Department involvement follows similar requests from Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill.