WASHINGTON — The first comprehensive review of the medical care system for veterans found widespread scheduling abuses, data falsification and long waiting times at dozens of hospitals and clinics across the country, including in Kansas.
In its audit of 731 medical facilities, the Department of Veterans Affairs reported Monday that 57,436 veterans have been waiting more than 90 days for an initial medical appointment.
Thirteen percent of schedulers told VA auditors that supervisors or other co-workers had instructed them to enter a different date in the appointment system than the one requested by a veteran.
“This audit is absolutely infuriating and underscores the depth of the scandal,” Paul Rieckhoff, founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a New York-based advocacy group, said in a statement. “Our vets demand action and answers.”
In Kansas, more than 100 veterans were on a waiting list for appointments at VA hospitals and clinics for 90 days or more, the audit showed. An additional 977 veterans in Kansas who have enrolled in the VA health care system during the past 10 years had never had an appointment scheduled.
According to the audit based on a snapshot of VA data from May 15, the average wait time for new patients seeking primary care was about 35 days at the VA center in Wichita and 41 days at the other two Kansas VA facilities.
The report showed 104 patients were on the electronic waiting list at the Robert J. Dole VA Medical Center in Wichita; six were awaiting care through the VA Eastern Kansas Health Care System, which includes VA medical centers in Leavenworth and Topeka.
The medical facility with the longest average wait time for a new patient to see a primary care physician was the VA medical center in Honolulu, at 145 days, while the VA hospital in Harlingen, Texas, topped the list for waits to see specialists, also at 145 days on average.
Eight percent of schedulers said pressure had been placed on them to bypass the VA’s official Electronic Wait List system and maintain unofficial lists in order to make waiting times appear shorter than they actually were, according to VA interviews with 3,772 clinical and administrative staff members.
Retired Army Gen. Eric Shinseki resigned May 31 as head of the Department of Veterans Affairs after acknowledging that inordinate wait times and scheduling data falsification were more widespread than he had believed.
Before his exit, Shinseki in mid-April directed the Veterans Health Administration to conduct the agency-wide audit. A key finding of the audit was that the 14-day target for waiting times Shinseki established in 2011 was unrealistic and “not obtainable.”
That problem was exacerbated by tying hospital managers’ bonuses to meeting the 14-day target. Setting such an unrealistic waiting-time target and linking it to performance bonuses created “an organizational leadership failure,” the audit found.
Sloan Gibson, named by President Obama as acting VA secretary, said Monday that the agency is eliminating the 14-day scheduling goal and suspending all performance awards for senior executives of the Veterans Health Administration. He said the VA also will deploy mobile medical units to provide care to some of the vets who have been waiting a long time for such care.
“This data shows the extent of the systemic problems we face, problems that demand immediate action,” Gibson said in a statement. “Veterans deserve to have full faith in their VA, and they will keep hearing from us until all our veterans receive the care they’ve earned.”
Gibson said the VA has contacted 50,000 vets nationwide to get them off waiting lists.
The scandal erupted at the VA hospital in Phoenix, where Gibson acknowledged during a visit last week that 18 veterans had died while waiting for medical appointments.
A probe by the agency’s inspector general found that vets waited an average of 115 days for their first medical appointment at the Phoenix hospital, 91 days longer than the center reported in its logs.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Obama had asked his deputy chief of staff, Rob Nabors, to work at the Veterans Affairs Department in order to assess the scope of the problem and propose more reforms. Earnest said Obama is focused on appointing a replacement for Shinseki soon.
“Clearly, having some new leadership in the VA is a top priority,” Earnest told reporters.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, branded the audit results “a national disgrace.” He said the House is considering legislation that would allow any vet who waits longer than 30 days for medical care to see private doctors with subsequent treatment covered by the government.
Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, whose members include 177,000 vets who fought in one or both of the two post-9/11 wars, wants a criminal investigation of VA employees who allegedly falsified data on how long veterans waited to see doctors.
The group is also pushing the Democratic-controlled Senate to pass the Veterans Affairs Management Accountability Act, which the Republican-ruled House approved May 21 by a wide bipartisan margin. The bill would give the new VA chief more power to swiftly remove hospital managers who falsify data and take other steps to sidestep civil service rules.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Monday that Sens. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, and John McCain, R-Ariz., had reached agreement on bipartisan legislation to reduce waiting times at VA hospitals and increase management accountability.
The measure also would allow veterans facing long health care delays to seek care outside the VA at private doctors’ offices, community health centers or military bases, Reid said.
U.S. Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said Monday the official electronic waiting list cited in the latest audit is different from the 385 names the VA center in Wichita told him last week that it had on an unauthorized waiting list.
“I don’t think anyone in the VA today knows how big the problem is,” he said.
Gov. Sam Brownback issued a statement after the VA released the data calling for immediate action by the federal government.
“It is unacceptable that any veteran who has served the nation, and who qualifies for treatment at a Veterans Affairs medical facility, is forced to wait for an extended period before receiving services,” he said.
Contributing: Associated Press