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VA Watchdog Finds 1,700 Veterans Stranded in Phoenix Health Care System


"These veterans were and continue to be at risk of being forgotten or lost in Phoenix HCS’s convoluted scheduling process."

In this May 15, 2014, photo, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki speaks with the news media on Capitol Hill in Washington. Shinseki would be granted more authority to fire or demote senior executives under a bill headed to the House floor. The measure comes as pressure builds on Capitol Hill to overhaul the beleaguered agency in response to allegations of treatment delays and preventable deaths. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen) AP Photo/Cliff Owen

A report released Wednesday says the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General has discovered 1,700 veterans in the VA's Phoenix Health Care System (HCS) who are seeking medical treatment, but have yet to be put on a wait list by the VA.

That finding is a sign that the VA is continuing to manipulate wait-time data to give the appearance that veterans are not waiting very long to receive health treatment. The VA healthcare scandal started with reports out of Phoenix that said veterans were not being put on the electronic wait list until it was known that an appointment could be scheduled relatively quickly.

The Department of Veterans Affairs Inspector General released a report saying hundreds of veterans are still not on healthcare wait lists, a finding that will likely put more pressure on embattled VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

Specifically, the report said the Inspector General has discovered 1,400 veterans on the electronic wait list that still don't have a primary care appointment. But it also found 1,700 others who are also waiting, and yet are not on the electronic wait list.

"Most importantly, these veterans were and continue to be at risk of being forgotten or lost in Phoenix HCS’s convoluted scheduling process," it said. It added that "inappropriate scheduling practices are systemic throughout VHA."

The report said that so far, the Inspector General's work has "substantiated serious conditions at the Phoenix HCS." But it also stresses that no final conclusions are being drawn yet about whether long wait-times at the Phoenix HCS contributed to the death of any veterans.

"The assessments needed to draw any conclusions require analysis of VA and non-VA medical records, death certificates, and autopsy results," it says. "We have made requests to appropriate state agencies and have issued subpoenas to obtain non-VA medical records."

It adds that the Inspector General's team is trying to assess whether people purposefully left off the wait list to give the appearance of shorter wait times, and whether any veterans' deaths were caused by this practice.

But while the investigation is still ongoing, the report made some initial recommendations that it said the VA should adopt right away.

"We recommend the VA Secretary take immediate action to review and provide appropriate health care to the 1,700 veterans we identified as not being on any existing wait list," the report said.

"Also, we recommend a review of all existing wait lists at the Phoenix Health Care System to identify veterans who may be at greatest risk because of a delay in the delivery of health care. We recommend initiation of a nationwide review of veterans on wait lists to ensure that veterans are seen in an appropriate time, given their clinical condition."

The report may be enough to force the Obama administration to take these initial steps, but it was not immediately clear whether the administration would take steps to fire VA officials involved in the scandal. President Barack Obama has said he wants a full report from the Inspector General before taking any major steps.

In the meantime, Republicans and even some Democrats are calling on VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to step down, and say he is responsible for failing to see warning signs about the scandal from the last few years.

Republicans pounced on the report as yet another verification that the VA is broken, and has ignored years worth of reports warning about long wait times for veterans.

House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said the report made some of the same findings as a 2013 audit that he requested. "The problems within the VA are rooted in bureaucracy, and even after GAO audits and congressional testimony in 2013 and years prior, the VA refused to fix their errors," McCarthy said.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said the report shows President Obama should call on the Senate to pass a House bill making it easier to fire VA officials involved in the scandal. Last week, the Senate delayed passage of that bill.

"Instead of waffling, the president should support this bill, and call on Senate Democrats to pass it immediately," Boehner said.  "The president has made a lot of promises to our veterans. It's time for him to start keeping them."

— This story was updated at 4:52 p.m.

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