WASHINGTON (AP) — Government investigators found no proof that delays in care caused veterans to die at a Phoenix VA hospital, but they found widespread problems that the Veterans Affairs Department is promising to fix.
Investigators uncovered large-scale improprieties in the way VA hospitals and clinics across the nation have been scheduling veterans for appointments, according to a report released Tuesday by the VA's Office of Inspector General.
The report said workers falsified waitlists while their supervisors looked the other way or even directed it, resulting in chronic delays for veterans seeking care.
"Inappropriate scheduling practices are a nationwide systemic problem," said the report by Richard Griffin, the VA's acting inspector general. "These practices became systemic because (the Veterans Health Administration) did not hold senior headquarters and facility leadership responsible and accountable."
The report could deflate an explosive allegation that helped launch the scandal in the spring: that as many as 40 veterans died while awaiting care at the Phoenix VA hospital. Investigators identified 40 patients who died while awaiting appointments in Phoenix.
But, the report said: "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."
Top VA officials said the report's findings were troubling.
"I'm glad that veterans didn't die because of delays in care, or at least they weren't able to conclude that they did," Deputy VA Secretary Sloan Gibson said in an interview. "But the fundamental issue is, veterans are waiting too long, and that's the problem we've got to face."
Addressing the American Legion's national convention in Charlotte, N.C., President Barack Obama said lengthy wait times and attempts to hide scheduling flaws were "outrageous and inexcusable."
"We are very clear-eyed about the problems that are still there," Obama said. "And those problems require us to regain the trust of our veterans and live up to our vision of a VA that is more effective and more efficient and that truly puts veterans first. And I will not be satisfied until that happens."
Investigators examined health records and other information for 3,409 Phoenix patients, including the 40 who died. They identified 28 patients who experienced "significant delays in care." Of those patients, six died, the report said.
In addition, they identified 17 patients "whose care deviated from the expected standard." Of those patients, 14 died, the report said.
Since problems at the VA emerged earlier this year, the inspector general's office says it has received 225 allegations of misconduct at the Phoenix VA, and 445 allegations of manipulated wait times at other VA medical facilities.
The inspector general's office is now investigating wait list issues at 93 medical facilities. The report said investigators have already found problems at "many medical facilities."
Among the problems at "many medical facilities," investigators said workers were canceling appointments and rescheduling them to make wait times appear shorter than they actually were. "We substantiated that management at one facility directed schedulers to do this," the report said.
Investigators also found workers using paper wait lists instead of official electronic ones that can be tracked.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said the Phoenix VA "failed to meet our nation's obligation to provide timely, quality health care to veterans."
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