WASHINGTON — A day after he was said to be on “thin ice” with the president, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki says he’s doing his utmost to address an inspector general’s finding that hundreds of military veterans may have had their care delayed as VA hospital workers allegedly manipulated wait lists.
In an opinion piece published Thursday in USA Today, Shinseki wrote that he found the report “reprehensible” and that he’s “not waiting to set things straight.”
The piece comes a day after the inspector general’s preliminary report said that at least 1,700 military veterans waiting to see a doctor were never scheduled for an appointment and were never placed on a wait list at the Veterans Affairs medical center in Phoenix, raising the question of just how many may have been “forgotten or lost” in the system.
“I immediately directed the Veterans Health Administration … to contact each of the 1,700 veterans in Phoenix waiting for primary care appointments in order to bring them the care they need and deserve,” Shinseki wrote in the USA Today piece.
Shinseki reiterated other steps he’s taken, including putting the leadership at the Phoenix facility on leave May 1 and ordering a “nationwide audit of all other major VA health care facilities to ensure understanding of, and compliance with, our appointment policy.”
“We are doing all we can to accelerate access to care throughout our system and in communities where veterans reside,” Shinkseki wrote. “I’ve challenged our leadership to ensure we are doing everything possible to schedule veterans for their appointments. We, at the Department of Veterans Affairs, are redoubling our efforts, with commitment and compassion, to restore integrity to our processes to earn veterans’ trust.”
Dr. Thomas Lynch, the VA’s assistant deputy undersecretary for clinical operations, has said there are plans in place to contact the 1,700 veterans in Phoenix by the close of business Friday to assess their needs and get them care.
Describing a “systemic” practice of manipulating appointments and wait lists at the Phoenix Health Care System, the VA’s Office of Inspector General called for a nationwide review to determine whether veterans at other locations were falling through the cracks.
It also appears to indicate that the scope of the inquiry is rapidly widening, with 42 VA medical centers across the country now under investigation for possible abuse of scheduling practices, according to the report.
Among the findings at the Phoenix VA, investigators determined that one consequence of manipulating appointments for the veterans was understating patient wait times, a factor considered for VA employee bonuses and raises, the report said.
The preliminary report sparked outrage from all corners, with some lawmakers calling for the agency’s chief to resign.
Shinseki has been on “probation” since President Barack Obama vowed last week to hold accountable those responsible for the delays, and he remains on “thin ice” with the President pending the outcome of the internal investigations, a White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The VA is under fire over allegations of alarming shortcomings at its medical facilities. The controversy involves delayed care with potentially fatal consequences in some cases.
In Phoenix, the VA used fraudulent record-keeping — including an alleged secret list — that covered up excessive waiting periods for veterans, some of whom died in the process.
The VA has acknowledged 23 deaths nationwide due to delayed care. The VA’s inspector general, Richard Griffin, told a Senate committee in recent weeks that his investigation so far had found a possible 17 deaths of veterans waiting for care in Phoenix, but he added that there was no evidence that excessive waiting was the reason.
Griffin recommended that Shinseki “take immediate action” to “review and provide appropriate health care” to the 1,700 veterans identified in Phoenix as not being on a wait list.
He also recommended that Shinseki initiate a nationwide review of waiting lists “to ensure that veterans are seen in an appropriate time, given their clinical condition.”