PHOENIX (AP) — Staffing shortages and a lack of access to clinical records unnecessarily endangered the health of several Phoenix patients battling prostate and bladder cancer, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said Thursday.
In a new report, the VA's Office of Inspector General cited several failures of the Phoenix VA's urology care. Patients' appointments were canceled because of a failure to address a staffing crisis. Non-VA providers' clinical documents were not readily made available to health care administrators, according to the review. In all, the inspector general's office said 10 patients experienced delays in care that put them at risk.
U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, called the details in the report "absolutely tragic and appalling."
"No veteran should ever be denied care after he put his life on the line in our country," the Georgia Republican said in a statement. "I expect every person responsible for this tragedy to be held accountable."
The embattled Phoenix VA Health Care System was at the center of a national scandal last year about wait times and other problems that led to a system-wide overhaul. The former director of the Phoenix operation lost her job amid reports administrators falsified waiting lists in order to collect bonuses.
Isakson said the report was following up on several quality-of-care problems that were identified in the Phoenix VA Health Care System last year.
U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla. and chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, said the report is another reminder that VA leaders still have a lot of work ahead of them.
"It's well past time for VA to clean up the mess in Phoenix. That means providing veterans with the care they have earned in a timely fashion and swiftly firing any employee standing in the way of this important task," Miller said.
More than 1,400 patients experienced delays in getting new evaluations or follow-up appointments with urology-affiliated physicians. "Patients who experienced delays also likely experienced frustration, confusion, and often fear related to not getting appointment," the report stated.
The 10 patients who were most affected included a man in his 60s with a history of prostate cancer. A follow-up appointment in February 2013 was canceled by the VA clinic and never rescheduled. When the man saw a primary care physician 10 months later, the cancer had spread to his spine and he died in April 2014.
The inspector general's report recommends that the Phoenix VA's interim director ensure resources are in place to guarantee timely urological care. It also called for non-VA providers' patient care records to be readily accessible in an electronic database.
VA officials said the department is committed to providing safe and timely health care to the 7 million veterans it serves. It also said the VA and the Phoenix VA Health Care System appreciate the review of the urology program and is in agreement with the report's recommendations. In a statement, officials said steps have been taken to improve care, and they hope to complete all plans of action by March 2016.
Dr. Skye McDougall, who is slated to start next month as regional director of the VA Southwest Healthcare Network that includes the Phoenix VA, has become a point of controversy. Sen. John McCain urged VA Secretary Robert McDonald in a letter Thursday to reconsider McDougall's appointment. The senator said he is concerned because of reports that McDougall gave false testimony before Congress about wait times for veterans in Southern California. McDougall was the acting director of the Desert Pacific Healthcare Network.
McCain reiterated his reservations on Thursday during an appearance at a west Phoenix mall. "I wonder in the case of the new VA director why of all the people they had available, why they had to select someone who was obviously very controversial," he said.
Associated Press writer Bob Christie contributed to this report.