115-Day Wait Time for Veterans' Care in Phoenix Has Congress Calling for VA Chief to Step Down

Inspector general's report confirms long waiting times for 1,700 veterans in Phoenix and says the problem is nationwide.

National Journal

A preliminary report Wednesday from the Veterans Affairs Department's inspector general confirmed that at least 1,700 veterans were kept off of waiting lists at the Phoenix Health Care System, leading more lawmakers on Capitol Hill to call for Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to step down.

"While our work is not complete, we have substantiated that significant delays in access to care negatively impacted the quality of care at [the Phoenix] medical facility," acting Inspector General Robert Griffin wrote in the new report.

And the issues there are not unique. "We are finding that inappropriate scheduling practices are a systemic problem nationwide," he wrote.

Using a sample of 226 veterans at the Phoenix facilities, Griffin's team found that veterans waited 115 days on average before receiving their first primary care appointment, far more than the 14 days recommended by the Veterans Affairs Department. Phoenix had reported its average wait was 24 days. Of those same veterans, 85 percent of them waited more than 14 days on average to receive care, while Phoenix officials reported that just 43 percent of veterans waited that long.

The Inspector General's Office found that schedulers were pressured by their superiors to alter waiting times, which are factored into staff members' bonuses and salary raises. In some cases, schedulers would change a veteran's requested appointment date to the next date the facility had available, resulting in a zero-day wait time.

In addition to the waiting-list delays, Griffin said that his office received "numerous allegations daily of mismanagement, inappropriate hiring decisions, sexual harassment, and bullying behavior by mid- and senior-level managers" at the Phoenix Health Care System.

In the wake of the report, Sen. John McCain and Rep. Jeff Miller, the top Republicans on the Senate Armed Services and House Veterans' Affairs committees, both issued statements calling on Shinseki to resign. Shortly after, Sen. Mark Udall became the first Democrat in the Senate to join the call.

Several dozen members of Congress have already called for Shinseki's resignation, though so far, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy and Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn are the only members of leadership to join them. President Obama has not asked for Shinseki to step down either, but left the door open during a speech last week. A senior administration official said that Shinseki's continued tenure as head of the department remains up in the air, as the investigation continues.

Obama was briefed on the report Wednesday by White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and found the report "extremely troubling," White House press secretary Jay Carney said. "[Shinseki] has said that VA will fully and aggressively implement the recommendations of the IG. The President agrees with that action and reaffirms that the VA needs to do more to improve veterans' access to care," Carney said in a statement. "Our nation's veterans have served our country with honor and courage and they deserve to know they will have the care and support they deserve."

The White House did not respond to a request for comment on whether Obama supports Shinseki's continued tenure as head of the department, even as the calls on the Hill grew louder.

The inspector general's report did not include the results of the investigation into whether any of the waiting-list issues resulted in deaths, as has been reported by several media outlets. That will be included in the office's final report which is due out in June.

In the interim, Griffin reported that his office has deployed "rapid response teams" that are visiting VA facilities without warning staff in order to investigate issues nationwide. So far, he wrote, they have visited or scheduled visits at 42 facilities across the country.

Griffin's team also sent a series of recommendations to Shinseki, focusing in particular on getting the 1,700 veterans who have been waiting for care into a VA facility as quickly as possible.

This post was updated on Wednesday at 4 p.m. to include President Obama's comments and additional calls for Shinseki's resignation.