President Barack Obama and WWII veteran Kenneth (Rock) Merritt talk onboard Marine One after departing the 70th French-American Commemoration D-Day Ceremony at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer, France, June 6, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
An audit on access to medical care by the US Department of Veterans Affairs shows tens of thousands of veterans are suffering from a lack of timely care, and an unknown number have likely died while on the waiting list.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki last month resigned over reports of VA staff falsifying records to hide the problem, which is also expected to impact Democratic candidates seeking re-election.
The audit says that as of May, more than 63,000 veterans over the past 10 years who are enrolled in the healthcare system have never had an appointment; almost 58,000 veterans are currently waiting to be scheduled for care.
Oregon’s Portland and Roseburg VA centers posted some of the longest waits for medical care in the country.
“The wait times reported by the VA audit are far worse than what local leadership has told us in recent weeks, which raises substantial questions about whether we can believe anything we hear about what is happening in these facilities and demands explanation,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley in a statement on Monday. “We need vastly improved leadership and a commitment from the highest levels of the Veterans Administration to fix these problems in Oregon, not sweep them under the rug. Our veterans deserve better.”
“I am appalled by today’s report that falsified records forced more than 6,600 Oregon veterans to endure unconscionable waiting times to receive the care they’ve earned,” said Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden. “Those who cooked the books at VA facilities or lied to Congress as it attempted to conduct oversight should be fired immediately and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
"VA is moving aggressively to contact these veterans through the Accelerating Access to Care Initiative," the audit says.
The VA in May reported over 6 million appointments scheduled across its system.
The national “Access Audit" listed four main conclusions:
— Because the appointment scheduling process is so complicated clerks and supervisors working in VA medical centers are confused about the process;
While officials set a two week waiting time for new appointments, that policy was "inconsistently deployed" and also "not attainable given growing demand for services and lack of planning for resource requirements;"
13 percent of schedulers told VA auditors that their supervisors told them to fudge dates in the scheduling system;
8 percent of schedulers did not even use the electronic system established for adding patient names to a waiting list, instead creating what critics are calling “secret wait lists.”
US Sen. Patty Murray D–WA, said this week the audit shows problems around the country for military veterans seeking medical and mental health services.
"Today's report paints a serious and disturbing picture of the DAs systemwide failure to provide timely access to care for our nation heroes. I am especially concerned by the number of facilities that serve Washington State veterans that have been flagged for further review and investigation. This information confirms what I have been hearing from so many veterans were struggling with extended wait times the Pacific Northwest.
"These are not new problems, But I hope today's data will spur continued bipartisan momentum as we work to pass the Sanders-McCain compromise. Finalizing this legislation is a critical step toward addressing some of the immediate accountability and access concerns plaguing the VA. In addition us further investigations and reviews are completed, we need to keep working to ensure the VA continues to take substantive action to address any management, resource, and personal shortcomings contributed to today's findings."
The Sanders McCain compromise refers to a deal brokered by Senators Bernie Sanders and John McCain giving veterans blocked from VA care the right to be seen by civilian doctors, as well as making it easier to fire VA officials.
Murray's office also says the Veterans Administration has released information about medical center quality and efficiency data, and mental health provider survey data, which her office had been requesting as part of a transparency crusade.
The VA audit lists nine locations in the Pacific Northwest that the Office of Inspector General says it will be investigating. Those facilities are, in Washington: Spokane, Puget Sound, Walla Walla, Wenatchee, Vancouver and Chehalis. In Oregon, the VA says it will investigate facilities in Portland and Roseburg.
According to the audit, the VA is fast-tracking the 90,000 veterans nationwide they say are currently waiting for healthcare services in an effort it has dubbed the “Accelerating Access to Care Initiative”.
In addition, the agency says it has suspended all senior executive performance awards for 2014; it will remove the 14 day performance goal from employee performance plans; it will step up training for schedulers; and will start a site inspection process.
Also this week, the Associated Press reported that the FBI is launching a criminal investigation into the VA over the audit findings.