57,000 still awaiting initial VA hospital visits, audit shows

Last Updated Jun 9, 2014 1:30 PM EDT

WASHINGTON -- More than 57,000 veterans have been waiting for up to three months for medical appointments, the Veterans Affairs Department said in a wide-ranging audit released Monday. An additional 64,000 who enrolled for VA health care over the past decade have never been seen by a doctor, according to the audit.

The audit is the first nationwide look at the VA network in the uproar that began with reports two months ago of patients dying while awaiting appointments and of cover-ups at the Phoenix VA center. Examining 731 VA hospitals and large outpatient clinics, the audit found long wait times across the country for patients seeking their first appointments with both primary care doctors and specialists.

The audit said a 14-day target for waiting times was "not attainable," given growing demand for VA services and poor planning. It called the 2011 decision by senior VA officials setting it, and then basing bonuses on meeting the target "an organizational leadership failure."

The audit is the third in a series of reports in the past month into long wait times and falsified records at VA facilities nationwide. The controversy forced VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign May 30. Shinseki took the blame for what he decried as a "lack of integrity" in the sprawling system providing health care to the nation's military veterans.

"This report makes it clear that the only people benefiting from our current VA health care system are the bureaucrats who put their own bonuses over veterans' care," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Tex., in a statement. "Now that we have further confirmation of the systemic nature of these problems, President Obama must direct the FBI to investigate the allegations of criminal misconduct."

The audit released Monday said 13 percent of VA schedulers reported getting instructions from supervisors or others to falsify appointment dates in order to meet on-time performance goals. About 8 percent of schedulers said they used alternatives to an official electronic waiting list, often under pressure to make waiting times appear more favorable.

Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson said the audit showed "systemic problems" that demand immediate action. VA officials have contacted 50,000 veterans across the country to get them off waiting lists and into clinics, Gibson said, and are in the process of contacting an additional 40,000 veterans.

On Saturday, House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., pitched several ideas to reform the troubled VA health care system, urging President Obama to do "whatever it takes" to address the systemic misconduct and treatment delays.

Miller's comments, delivered in the weekly GOP address, came just two days after a key bipartisan pair of senators announced a deal to reform the VA's health care system.

Gibson visited several VA facilities last week to detail the department's response to the immediate problem with treatment delays. He said the department is committed to re-earning the trust of America's veterans "one at a time."

Ismael Bruno, a 41-year-old New York City firefighter who served in the Navy and the Marine Corps, told CBS News last month that he no longer goes to VA hospitals because he felt like the administrative staffs there showed such little respect for veterans. He says scheduling appointments sometimes took several months and office employees display nothing but apathy while veterans wait alone for hours.

"It's always poor service," Bruno said. "I think I've gotten better service at the DMV."

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