WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Veterans Affairs department's inspector general on Wednesday substantiated allegations that staff at Phoenix VA medical facilities used inappropriate scheduling practices that covered up months-long wait times for healthcare appointments for veterans.
Releasing an interim report on the Phoenix Health Care System allegations, the VA inspector general said it identified 1,700 veterans who were waiting for a primary care appointment but were not listed on the agency's electronic waiting list.
"Most importantly, these veterans were and continue to be at risk of being forgotten or lost in Phoenix HCS’s convoluted scheduling process," the inspector general's office said in the report. "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 26-day average reported by the Phoenix VA and the department's 14-day goal.
The report did not, however, reach any conclusion on whether the delays in these appointments resulted in a delay in diagnosis or treatment, or deaths. VA doctors in Phoenix have said that some 40 veterans had died while waiting for appointment.
The Inspector general said it still needs more clinical review and analysis of VA and non-VA medical records, death certificates and autopsy results for those veterans who died while on a waiting list.
Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, called for VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to step down as the report was released, reversing his previous wait-and-see approach to the VA chief.
"I think it's time for General Shinseki to move on," McCain, a former Vietnam War prisoner of war, told CNN. "I think it's reached that point ... this keeps piling up."
The chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, Republican Representative Jeff Miller, also called for Shinseki to quit, saying that the retired four-star Army general "is not a leader."
Miller also said Attorney General Eric Holder should launch a criminal investigation into the matter.
"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.
(Reporting by David Lawder and Susan Heavey; editing by Matthew Lewis)