Report Finds Systemic Problems With VA Wait Lists
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
A systemic problem nationwide - that's how the Inspector General for Veterans Affairs has described the problem of falsified wait times at VA medical centers. At one facility in Phoenix, veterans waited on average 115 days for an appointment.
Today's report confirms some of the allegations that have led many to call for VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign. Here to tell us more about this initial report is NPR's Quil Lawrence. And, Quil, 115 days, that's a very long time to wait for an appointment. And the charge here is that hospital administrators were actually faking data to make it look like the waits weren't so bad.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Exactly, and their performance bonuses depended on it. So you can see there was an incentive. But there's a cycle here, where the VA's been overwhelmed by new patients from Iraq and Afghanistan, but also Vietnam and older veterans who were having more health problems as they get older.
Today Senator John McCain on CNN said that the VA had set itself an impossible goal to see vets within 14 days of when they asked for an appointment.
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SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: Because they were trying to comply with guidelines that were laid down from the headquarters of VA, which they couldn't meet. That's what this whole phantom waiting list and stuff is all about.
LAWRENCE: So if in reality Phoenix veterans were waiting 115 days, the official count that was being handed up to Washington was that it was an average wait of only 24 days. So they felt they couldn't ask for more resources because the VA budget has already spiked up. So they lied about it, and then they stayed overwhelmed.
BLOCK: Well, did this report find that any of these patients died because of the long waits?
LAWRENCE: They're not sure about that yet. This is an interim report, and the IG says that's going to take a lot more time, looking through death record, autopsies. But some whistle-blowers have been saying that any delay in care is an injury and that veterans deserve better. Other voices are saying, well, better compared to what? Comparing these wait times to the private sector, they say that the VA is delivering pretty good care in the context of the state of American health care.
BLOCK: Now, Quil, we said that the report found a systemic, nationwide problem so even if they started looking into Phoenix, it sounds like they broadened their scope well beyond that.
LAWRENCE: The IG says it's formed rapid response teams. So they're making surprise visits to VA clinics around the country. They say they have 42 active investigations now all over the country.
The report said that it's systemic and that there may be criminal charges. But they also say, right at the top of the report, that this isn't a new problem. The inspector general has called attention to it 18 times since 2005. And Congress has been talking about it since 2001. That's been an issue then for five or six VA secretaries.
BLOCK: And it appears that there is now a growing chorus of voices calling for the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, including Republican Senator McCain, whom you referred to earlier.
LAWRENCE: Right, and it was almost all Republicans. Some Democrats chimed in today. McCain, when he spoke on CNN, he seemed almost sad to do it.
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MCCAIN: I haven't said this before, but I think it's time for General Shinseki to move on.
LAWRENCE: So most of the calls, they'll note that Shinseki's an honorable man. They're just saying that after six years on the job, he now owns this problem. Or worse, they say, he's oblivious to it. His defenders say Shinseki is just unflappable and cool under fire, but on television that can almost come off like indifference.
Another question is, who would do a better job and how long it would take to get spun up on what's the second largest bureaucracy in Washington? Shinseki himself today said only that he's going to enforce the recommendations aggressively. He didn't say a word about stepping down.
BLOCK: OK. NPR's Quil Lawrence, who covers veterans and veterans' issues. Quil, thanks so much.
LAWRENCE: Thank you.
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