Report finds VA wait lists for care a 'systemic' issue

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WASHINGTON -- An independent review of Veterans Administration health centers has determined that government officials falsified records to hide the amount of time former service members have had to wait for medical appointments, calling a crisis that arose in one hospital in Phoenix a "systemic problem nationwide."

The inspector general's report, a 35-page interim document, prompted new calls for Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, a former general and Vietnam veteran, to resign a post he has held since the start of the Obama administration. Those calls from lawmakers included members of President Barack Obama's own party, complicating what is already a political challenge for a president who has made veterans issues a legacy-defining priority after a decade of war.

The report found that 1,700 veterans using a Phoenix VA hospital were kept on unofficial wait lists, a practice that helped officials avoid criticism for failing to accommodate former service members in the appropriate amount of time.

A review of 226 veterans seeking appointments at the hospital in 2013 found that 84 percent had to wait more than two weeks to be seen. But officials at the hospital had reported that fewer than half were forced to wait that long, a false account that was then used to help determine eligibility for employee awards and pay raises.

The agency has made it a goal to schedule appointments for veterans seeking medical care within 30 days. But the interim IG report found that in the 226-case sample, the average wait for a veteran seeking a first appointment was 115 days, a period officials allegedly tried to hide by placing veterans on "secret lists" until an appointment could be found in the appropriate time frame.

"We are finding that inappropriate scheduling practices are a systemic problem nationwide," the report states. "We have identified multiple types of scheduling practices not in compliance with [Veterans Health Administration] policy."

The initial findings were released as Mr. Obama delivered the commencement address at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. During the speech, as he did earlier this week in a surprise visit to troops in Afghanistan, he pledged to ensure that veterans receive proper care as they return from war. The report helps clarify allegations that have swirled around the VA for weeks. White House officials said Mr. Obama had been briefed on its findings and found them "extremely troubling."

Reaction among members of Congress was sharper. Several prominent Republicans immediately called for Mr. Shinseki's resignation, among them: Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a leading GOP voice on military and foreign affairs; Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., who heads the House Veterans Affairs committee; and Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., who leads the House Armed Services Committee.

"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," Mr. Miller said in a statement Wednesday, hours before a congressional hearing on the allegations was set to begin. "What's worse, to this day, Shinseki -- in both word and deed -- appears completely oblivious to the severity of the health care challenges facing the department."

The American Legion is the only veterans group calling upon Mr. Shinseki to resign, and others say they are closely monitoring the probe. The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America blasted the administration over the report.

"Today's report makes it painfully clear that the VA does not always have our veterans' backs," IAVA said.

Mr. Shinseki expressed outrage at the findings and noted that he launched a new initiative last week to expand capacity at VA clinics and allow more veterans to obtain health care at private health centers.

"I have reviewed the interim report, and the findings are reprehensible to me, to this Department and to veterans," Mr. Shinseki said in a statement. "I am directing that the Phoenix VA Health Care System ... immediately triage each of the 1,700 veterans identified by the [inspector general] to bring them timely care."

Mr. Miller joined a growing list of lawmakers asking the Justice Department to launch a formal criminal inquiry. Mr. McCain, who is among those on that list, said in a statement: "It is alarming that Secretary Shinseki either wasn't aware of these systemic problems or wasn't forthcoming in his communications with Congress about them. Either way, it is clear to me that new leadership is needed at the VA."

While several top congressional leaders have said Mr. Shinseki should remain in office to help address the sprawling department's woes, a series of Democratic legislators also joined calls for Mr. Shinseki's resignation.

On Wednesday afternoon, Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado became the first sitting Democratic senator to urge it. He was soon joined by Democratic Sens. John Walsh of Montana and Kay Hagen of North Carolina, and Reps. Scott Peters of California, Bruce Braley of Iowa, Ron Barber of Arizona and Tim Ryan of Ohio.

At a news conference last week, Mr. Obama defended Mr. Shinseki, but said it would be "a disgrace" if allegations that dozens of veterans died because of improper scheduling practices were true. The inspector general's report didn't definitively say whether extended waits caused veteran deaths. It did say "significant delays in access to care negatively impacted the quality of care" at the Phoenix clinic.

White House aides stressed Wednesday that the president believes the improper scheduling issue must be handled immediately and aggressively, stopping short of defending Mr. Shinseki.

"The president found the findings extremely troubling," White House spokesman Jay Carney said.


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