DENVER - Colorado Democratic Senator Mark Udall is calling for Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign.
Udall becomes the first Democratic senator to make such a demand in the ongoing scandal over VA medical care. He made his statement Wednesday on Twitter after the release of an internal report that found the VA systemically delayed care to wounded veterans and manipulated records to cover it up.
The VA's inspector general is investigating 42 VA facilities across the country. It found the average wait time for care at the Phoenix VA hospital was 115 days.
Udall made his resignation call in a tweet from his official Twitter account.
Udall's resignation call came after Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called for Shinseki to resign. Miller also said Attorney General Eric Holder should launch a criminal investigation into the VA.
Investigators identified 1,700 veterans awaiting medical care at the Phoenix VA hospital but not on an official waiting list and an average wait of 115 days for a first appointment for those who were listed, the Veterans Affairs Department's inspector general said Wednesday. The IG concluded that "inappropriate scheduling practices are systemic throughout" the nationwide VA health care system.
Richard J. Griffin, the department's acting inspector general, said in an interim report that investigators had "substantiated serious conditions" at the Phoenix VA hospital. "While our work is not complete, we have substantiated that significant delays in access to care negatively impacted the quality of care at this medical facility," he wrote in the 35-page report.
Miller said the report confirmed that "wait time schemes and data manipulation are systemic throughout VA and are putting veterans at risk in Phoenix and across the country."
Shinseki called the IG's findings "reprehensible to me, to this department and to veterans." He said he was directing the Phoenix VA to immediately address each of the 1,700 veterans waiting for appointments.
Griffin said his office has increased the number of VA health care facilities it is investigating to 42 nationwide, up from 26 known to be under investigation as of last week. He said investigators' next steps include determining whether names of veterans awaiting care were purposely omitted from electronic waiting lists and at whose direction and whether any deaths were related to delays in care.
He said investigators at some of the other 42 facilities "have identified instances of manipulation of VA data that distort the legitimacy of reported waiting times."
Justice Department officials have already been brought into cases where there is evidence of a criminal or civil violation, Griffin said.
Dr. Samuel Foote, a former clinic director for the VA in Phoenix who was the first to bring the allegations to light, said the findings were no surprise.
"I knew about all of this all along," Foote told The Associated Press in an interview. "The only thing I can say is you can't celebrate the fact that vets were being denied care."
Foote took issue with the finding by the inspector general that patients had, on average, waited 115 days for their first medical appointment.
"I don't think that number is correct. It was much longer," he said. "It seemed to us to be about six months."
Still, Foote said it is good that the VA finally appears to be addressing some long-standing problems.
"Everybody has been gaming the system for a long time," he said. "Phoenix just took it to another level. ... The magnitude of the problem nationwide is just so huge, so it's hard for most people to get a grasp on it."
The report Wednesday said 84 percent of a statistical sample of 226 veterans at the Phoenix hospital waited more than 14 days to get a primary care appointment. VA guidelines say veterans should be seen within 14 days of their desired date for a primary care appointment. A fourth of the 226 received some level of care during the interim, such as in the emergency room or at a walk-in clinic, the report said.
The report said investigators would not be able make any determination about whether long appointment waits resulted in patient deaths until after they analyze medical records, death certificates and autopsy results.
In a related matter, Griffin said investigators have received numerous allegations of mismanagement, inappropriate hiring decisions, sexual harassment and bullying behavior by mid- and senior-level managers at the Phoenix hospital. Investigators were assessing the validity of the complaints and their effect, if any, on patients' access to care, he said.
-- Local veterans weigh in --
Local veterans are expressing their concern about the treatment they receive at VA medical facilities
“They've been giving good care, it just takes them a long time for them to see me,” a Vietnam War veteran told 7NEWS. He didn't want us to reveal his identity over concerns his interview could impact his care at the VA outpatient facility in Fort Collins.
The Fort Collins facility has been a target of federal investigators amid allegations staff members were told to falsify records to make it appear patients were seen in a timely manner.
In the case of this veteran, he claims he's not immune from the long wait times.
"Shoulder problems. Back problems. They schedule me out 90 days before I can get seen," he said.
In his late 60's, he's been waiting weeks to get a MRI. The interim solution: pills to mask the pain.
"I don't want to take the pills. The pills are not the answer. The care is where the answer is."
Like lawmakers from both political parties, this veteran feels a comprehensive review of the VA health system is necessary.
"Who's running the show is, I think that's where the problem is. And I think they need to increase the staff on the lower level."