VA Secretary Bob McDonald visits the Phoenix VA Medical Center on Aug. 9. (Department of Veterans Affairs)
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Veterans Affairs leaders say they’re relieved that investigators have found no evidence of patient deaths connected to serious medical appointment delay problems at the Phoenix VA Health Care System, but said the months-long review still points to numerous failings and embarrassments for the department.
The full inspector general report is expected to be released later this week. But in a preliminary response to that final report written Aug. 18, VA officials note that investigators were unable to substantiate claims of at least 40 veterans’ deaths connected to long wait times for appointments in Phoenix.
The inflammatory accusation, made by whistleblowers in the Arizona system and lawmakers critical of the department, played a key role in forcing the resignation of former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and numerous other top officials.
VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson, in response to drafts of the inspector general investigation, said the findings in no way represent good news for the Phoenix system or the department as a whole, however.
“Veterans were waiting too long for care,” he said. “I am relieved that there weren’t findings that veterans died as a consequence of those delays, but that doesn’t excuse the delays. That was unacceptable. It doesn’t meet our standard of care, it doesn’t meet what we promised to deliver.”
“I don’t know how you find anything comforting in this report.”
In a statement responding to the findings, new VA Secretary Bob McDonald and interim undersecretary for health Carolyn Clancy acknowledge that their agency is still “in the midst of a very serious crisis” and offer an apology for past failings.
Earlier this year, the inspector general found evidence of veterans waiting months for medical appointments and administrators covering up the delays to protect employee bonuses, not just at Phoenix but at numerous sites across the country.
McDonald has ordered an outside audit of medical center scheduling procedures and promised to fire employees guilty of “willful misconduct or management negligence.”
They’ve also redirected about $17 million to the Phoenix system to help deal with staffing and space shortfalls, and — at the urging of Congress — begun using outside physicians more to help with the scheduling delays.
Last month, Congress passed a massive expansion of those private care options, along with new authorities to make it easier to fire senior executives in the department. In his last act as secretary, Shinseki began the firing process for numerous VA senior leaders, but most of those officials are still awaiting formal dismissal.
Gibson said once the Phoenix investigation is complete, VA leaders will move ahead with personnel actions against numerous employees there. But he could not offer a time frame for when any individuals might lose their jobs.
He said he expects to see other department missteps surface in coming months — the VA inspector general and Office of Special Counsel have dozens of investigations still open — but said he is optimistic that “we don’t have another Phoenix out there.”
“What I saw out there ... I characterize as a combination of leadership failure, mismanagement and chronic underinvestment,” he said.