Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, left, and Veterans Affairs Undersecretary for Health Robert Petzel are sworn in before testifying to the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee on May 15 in Washington, D.C. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
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The results of a much-anticipated government investigation into charges of scheduling fraud at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care System will not be out until August, VA Acting Inspector General Richard Griffin said Thursday.
In a hearing before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Griffin called the review his office’s “top priority” and said maximum resources are being spent to complete it.
According to Griffin, the IG team is looking into whether the Phoenix center’s electronic waiting list for appointments purposely omitted veterans who were waiting for care and whether any veterans died as a result of delays.
In addition, the VA IG has sought assistance from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Arizona and the public integrity section of the Justice Department in case any of the findings merit criminal prosecution, Griffin said.
His testimony came near the end of a marathon hearing that included VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, VA Under Secretary for Health Dr. Robert Petzel and representatives of seven veterans services organizations.
Some lawmakers, along with Shinseki, have called for patience in the growing scandal while the IG completes its investigation.
The VA health system has faced longstanding problems with its scheduling system and appointment wait times, prompting numerous Government Accountability Office studies and VA Inspector General reports.
In December 2012, GAO noted that schedulers at four VA medical centers hid actual wait times, fudged the numbers, backdated appointments to meet timeliness goals set by department headquarters and kept paper-only records.
The problems reached crisis level last month following media reports alleging that the facility’s off-the-books wait list may have led to the deaths of at least 40 patients.
And they appear to be far from over: Two employees were placed on leave Tuesday at the Durham, North Carolina VA Medical Center for alleged inappropriate scheduling practices, while investigations also are underway at hospitals in Texas, Wyoming and Colorado.
GAO analyst Debra Draper also said during the hearing on Thursday that her office expects to release the results of an investigation into VA’s management of specialty care consults this summer.
According to Draper, the preliminary review has found a number of problems, including delays in care, care not being provided, and system-wide closure of 1.5 million consults older than 90 days with no documentation to explain why they were closed.
“As the demand for VA health care continues to escalate, it is imperative that VA addresses access to care problems,” Draper said.
Griffin promised Senate Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., preliminary results of the investigation into the Phoenix allegations if there appears to be “a scene where it would be appropriate.”
He added, however, that the review to date has pulled together an initial list of 17 people who experienced delays of care in Phoenix, although none conclusively show that the delays contributed to their deaths.
“It's one thing to be on a waiting list. And it’s another thing to conclude that as a result of being on the waiting list, that's the cause of death,” Griffin said.