115-Day Wait Time for Veterans’ Care in Phoenix Has Congress Calling for VA Chief to Step Down

Inspector general’s report confirms long waiting times for 1,700 veterans in Phoenix and says the problem is nationwide.

National Journal
Sarah Mimms
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Sarah Mimms
May 28, 2014, 9:58 a.m.

A pre­lim­in­ary re­port Wed­nes­day from the Vet­er­ans Af­fairs De­part­ment’s in­spect­or gen­er­al con­firmed that at least 1,700 vet­er­ans were kept off of wait­ing lists at the Phoenix Health Care Sys­tem, lead­ing more law­makers on Cap­it­ol Hill to call for Vet­er­ans Af­fairs Sec­ret­ary Eric Shin­seki to step down.

“While our work is not com­plete, we have sub­stan­ti­ated that sig­ni­fic­ant delays in ac­cess to care neg­at­ively im­pacted the qual­ity of care at [the Phoenix] med­ic­al fa­cil­ity,” act­ing In­spect­or Gen­er­al Robert Griffin wrote in the new re­port.

And the is­sues there are not unique. “We are find­ing that in­ap­pro­pri­ate schedul­ing prac­tices are a sys­tem­ic prob­lem na­tion­wide,” he wrote.

Us­ing a sample of 226 vet­er­ans at the Phoenix fa­cil­it­ies, Griffin’s team found that vet­er­ans waited 115 days on av­er­age be­fore re­ceiv­ing their first primary care ap­point­ment, far more than the 14 days re­com­men­ded by the Vet­er­ans Af­fairs De­part­ment. Phoenix had re­por­ted its av­er­age wait was 24 days. Of those same vet­er­ans, 85 per­cent of them waited more than 14 days on av­er­age to re­ceive care, while Phoenix of­fi­cials re­por­ted that just 43 per­cent of vet­er­ans waited that long.

The In­spect­or Gen­er­al’s Of­fice found that sched­ulers were pres­sured by their su­per­i­ors to al­ter wait­ing times, which are factored in­to staff mem­bers’ bo­nuses and salary raises. In some cases, sched­ulers would change a vet­er­an’s re­ques­ted ap­point­ment date to the next date the fa­cil­ity had avail­able, res­ult­ing in a zero-day wait time.

In ad­di­tion to the wait­ing-list delays, Griffin said that his of­fice re­ceived “nu­mer­ous al­leg­a­tions daily of mis­man­age­ment, in­ap­pro­pri­ate hir­ing de­cisions, sexu­al har­ass­ment, and bul­ly­ing be­ha­vi­or by mid- and seni­or-level man­agers” at the Phoenix Health Care Sys­tem.

In the wake of the re­port, Sen. John Mc­Cain and Rep. Jeff Miller, the top Re­pub­lic­ans on the Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices and House Vet­er­ans’ Af­fairs com­mit­tees, both is­sued state­ments call­ing on Shin­seki to resign. Shortly after, Sen. Mark Ud­all be­came the first Demo­crat in the Sen­ate to join the call.

Sev­er­al dozen mem­bers of Con­gress have already called for Shin­seki’s resig­na­tion, though so far, House Ma­jor­ity Whip Kev­in Mc­Carthy and Sen­ate Minor­ity Whip John Cornyn are the only mem­bers of lead­er­ship to join them. Pres­id­ent Obama has not asked for Shin­seki to step down either, but left the door open dur­ing a speech last week. A seni­or ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial said that Shin­seki’s con­tin­ued ten­ure as head of the de­part­ment re­mains up in the air, as the in­vest­ig­a­tion con­tin­ues.

Obama was briefed on the re­port Wed­nes­day by White House Chief of Staff Denis Mc­Donough and found the re­port “ex­tremely troub­ling,” White House press sec­ret­ary Jay Car­ney said. “[Shin­seki] has said that VA will fully and ag­gress­ively im­ple­ment the re­com­mend­a­tions of the IG. The Pres­id­ent agrees with that ac­tion and re­af­firms that the VA needs to do more to im­prove vet­er­ans’ ac­cess to care,” Car­ney said in a state­ment. “Our na­tion’s vet­er­ans have served our coun­try with hon­or and cour­age and they de­serve to know they will have the care and sup­port they de­serve.”

The White House did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment on wheth­er Obama sup­ports Shin­seki’s con­tin­ued ten­ure as head of the de­part­ment, even as the calls on the Hill grew louder.

The in­spect­or gen­er­al’s re­port did not in­clude the res­ults of the in­vest­ig­a­tion in­to wheth­er any of the wait­ing-list is­sues res­ul­ted in deaths, as has been re­por­ted by sev­er­al me­dia out­lets. That will be in­cluded in the of­fice’s fi­nal re­port which is due out in June.

In the in­ter­im, Griffin re­por­ted that his of­fice has de­ployed “rap­id re­sponse teams” that are vis­it­ing VA fa­cil­it­ies without warn­ing staff in or­der to in­vest­ig­ate is­sues na­tion­wide. So far, he wrote, they have vis­ited or sched­uled vis­its at 42 fa­cil­it­ies across the coun­try.

Griffin’s team also sent a series of re­com­mend­a­tions to Shin­seki, fo­cus­ing in par­tic­u­lar on get­ting the 1,700 vet­er­ans who have been wait­ing for care in­to a VA fa­cil­ity as quickly as pos­sible.

This post was up­dated on Wed­nes­day at 4 p.m. to in­clude Pres­id­ent Obama’s com­ments and ad­di­tion­al calls for Shin­seki’s resig­na­tion.

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