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Scathing inspector’s report skewers Phoenix VA hospital

Wait-time data found to be false, hindering care

NEW YORK — In the first confirmation that Department of Veterans Affairs administrators manipulated medical waiting lists at one and possibly more hospitals, the department’s inspector general reported Wednesday that 1,700 patients at the veterans medical center in Phoenix were not placed on the official waiting list for doctors’ appointments and may never have received care.

The scathing report by Richard J. Griffin, the acting inspector general, validates allegations raised by whistle-blowers and others that Veterans Affairs officials in Phoenix employed artifices to cloak long waiting times for veterans seeking medical care.

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Griffin said the average waiting time in Phoenix for initial primary care appointments, 115 days, was nearly five times as long as what the hospital’s administrators had reported.

He suggested the falsified data may have led to more favorable performance reviews for personnel and indicated that some instances of potentially manipulated data had been given to the Justice Department.

Griffin said that similar kinds of manipulation to hide long and possibly growing waiting times were “systemic throughout” the VA health care system, with its 150 medical centers serving 8 million veterans a year. The inspector general’s office is reviewing practices at 42 VA medical facilities.

Griffin’s report brought immediate political consequences. For the first time since the controversy erupted last month, several Senate Democrats, including Mark Udall of Colorado and John Walsh of Montana, demanded that the secretary of Veterans Affairs, Eric Shinseki, step down, joining Republican lawmakers who have been making that demand for weeks.

Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, a former naval aviator who was a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War and is now an influential voice on veterans issues, also called Wednesday for Shinseki to resign. Along with several other leading Republican lawmakers who had been withholding judgment, McCain asked the FBI to investigate the Phoenix hospital. Griffin previously said that he was working with the Justice Department to examine whether criminal violations had occurred there.

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Shinseki, in a statement, called the findings “reprehensible to me” and ordered the department to “immediately triage each of the 1,700 veterans” and give them timely care. The department suspended two senior officials at the Phoenix medical center shortly after the allegations of falsified waiting lists became public this month.

Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, said President Obama found the report “extremely troubling,” but he did not indicate whether Shinseki had lost the confidence of the White House.

Griffin’s interim report — the final version is expected by August — did not address the most explosive allegations made about the Phoenix facility: that as many as 40 veterans who were never put on the official list for doctors’ appointments might have died while awaiting care. He said determinations could be made only after examining autopsy reports and other documents that were still being reviewed. He had said that after reviewing 17 of those cases, he had found no indication that any of those deaths were tied to delays.

But the rest of his report was sweeping in its indictment of the Phoenix hospital and contained sharp criticism of much of the rest of the veterans health care bureaucracy.

“While our work is not complete, we have substantiated that significant delays in access to care negatively impacted the quality of care at this medical facility,” Griffin said.

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