WASHINGTON - The acting inspector general for the Department of Veterans Affairs told a Senate panel Tuesday that managers at more than a dozen medical facilities lied to investigators about problems including scheduling appointments.
Richard Griffin said his office is investigating allegations of wrongdoing at 93 VA facilities across the country. Twelve reports have been completed and submitted to the VA, and the rest are "very much active," Griffin said told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee on Tuesday.
The VA has come under fire after reports of delays in treatment and concealed wait lists that may have resulted in the deaths of dozens of veterans. VA investigators say they have found no proof that the delays in care caused the deaths of 40 veterans who died while waiting for care, but top officials still say the chronic delays were still unacceptable.
The scandal at the agency eventually forced the resignation of former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. He was replaced by Bob McDonald, the former chief executive of Procter & Gamble and a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
Investigators say that efforts to cover up or hide the delays were systemic across the nearly 1,000 hospitals and clinics run by the VA.
So far, Griffin's report - which is incomplete - shows that managers at 13 facilities lied to investigators about scheduling problems and other issues, and officials at 42 of the 93 sites engaged in manipulation of scheduling, including 19 sites where appointments were cancelled and then rescheduled for the same day to meet on-time performance goals.
Sixteen facilities failed to use the required electronic waiting lists and instead used paper waiting lists for patients, Griffin said.
The Aug. 26 report from his office said workers at a Phoenix VA hospital falsified waiting lists while their supervisors looked the other way or even directed it, resulting in chronic delays for veterans seeking care. Investigators identified 28 patients who were negatively affected by "clinically significant delays in care," including six who died, he said. In addition, 14 of 17 patients who received poor care unrelated to delays or scheduling problems died, he said.
Three high-ranking officials at the Phoenix facility have been placed on leave while they appeal a department decision to fire them.
Griffin said the report by his office provides the VA with "a major impetus to re-examine the entire process of setting performance expectations for its leaders and managers" throughout the system.
McDonald said the report was troubling and that is agency is already working to implement the reforms it recommends.
"I sincerely apologize to all veterans who experienced unacceptable delays in receiving care at the Phoenix facility, and across the country," McDonald said Tuesday. "We at VA are committed to fixing the problems and consistently providing the high quality care our veterans have earned and deserve in order to improve their health and well-being."
The VA has reached out to all veterans on official and unofficial waiting lists at the Phoenix hospital, McDonald said.
The Phoenix hospital has hired 53 additional full-time employees in recent moths to help alleviate the appointment backlog, the secretary said. In May, June and July they completed 150,000 at the hospital, a significant increase over previous years.
In all, the VA has reached out to more than 266,000 veterans nationwide to get them off waiting lists and into clinics, McDonald said.
McDonald on Monday unveiled what he called a three-point plan to rebuild trust among veterans, improve service delivery and set a course for the agency's long-term future, including simplifying a system he said is too complicated for veterans. The plan should be implemented by Veterans Day, Nov. 11, he said.
The former Procter & Gamble CEO also said he wants to make the VA less formal, starting with his own title. "Call me Bob," not Mr. Secretary, he said.
He gave his cellphone number to a roomful of reporters as a sign of his intent to increase transparency in what he called the VA's closed culture, which he said has made it difficult to root out problems at the facilities spread far and wide across the country.