U.S. veterans health probe says cannot link deaths to broken system

Reuters News
Posted: Aug 26, 2014 4:50 PM

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A probe into long waits for medical treatment at Veterans Affairs facilities in Phoenix found cover-ups of delays and a break-down in ethics but could not conclude that anyone died as a result of "unacceptable and troubling lapses" in care.

The Department of Veterans Affairs' inspector general, an internal watchdog, released a final report on Tuesday documenting how Phoenix officials masked months-long wait times to try to achieve two-week targets used for salary and bonus awards.

The watchdog has found that manipulation of appointment data is a "systemic problem" around the country, and has since opened up investigations at 93 other facilities.

The revelations have embarrassed President Barack Obama, who had promised to improve services for veterans returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The scandal prompted former Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign in May.

The inspector general said it could not substantiate an allegation made by a whistleblower in Phoenix that 40 veterans had died while waiting for care.

"While the case reviews in this report document poor quality of care, we are unable to conclusively assert that the absence of timely quality care caused the deaths of these veterans," the report said.

The report documented 45 cases where "unacceptable and troubling lapses" in care affected veterans, 28 of whom experienced "clinically significant delays" in getting treatment for a range of medical, surgical and mental health issues, however. Six of those patients died.

The chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, Republican Jeff Miller, said the report "paints a very disturbing picture".

"We have seen no evidence that the corrupt bureaucrats who created the VA scandal will be purged from the department’s payroll anytime soon," he said.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, the chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, said he was "relieved" the report did not find patients had died because of delays, but said officials needed to be held accountable.

The investigation found that while about 1,400 veterans were on official electronic waiting lists, more than 3,500 additional people were on hidden wait lists.

"These veterans were at risk of never obtaining their requested or necessary appointments," the report said, noting that the officials who ran the Phoenix facilities were aware unofficial lists existed.

In a statement included with the report, new Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald apologized to veterans and said the department was moving to fix the problems.

Obama on Tuesday announced steps to improve availability of mental health care for military personnel and told the American Legion's national convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, that his administration would address the wait lists issue.

"Misconduct we’ve seen at too many facilities with long wait times and folks cooking the books is outrageous and inexcusable," he said.

"What I want you to know directly from me, is we are going to get to the bottom of these problems, we are going to fix what is wrong, we are going to do right by your families."

(Reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)