Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, vowed to hold hearings on the lapses in care in the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care system. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)
Congressional leaders are promising hearings and further investigation into allegations that officials in the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care system covered up lengthy wait times for care of thousands of veterans, contributing to at least 40 deaths.
On Thursday, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, vowed to hold hearings on the lapses in care following an already-underway inspector general investigation.
“I am troubled when I hear that any veteran may have received substandard service from VA,” he said. “We, as a nation, have a commitment to provide timely, quality health care to veterans, and I am determined to assist VA in meeting this responsibility.”
Earlier this month, members of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee voiced concerns about a rumored off-the-books waiting list for patients in the Phoenix VA system. In recent days, Arizona Republican Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake asked VA and Congress for a full investigation, calling it “an apparent failure to provide quality health care to our veterans.”
On Wednesday, CNN reported that a former physician from the Phoenix system provided documents and emails showing that local VA leaders reported false wait times for patients to higher officials in order to fake progress in getting veterans timely care.
According to the report, a second wait list, not previously made public, showed thousands of veterans waiting months or years for needed care appointments. In some cases, documents showing the true wait time for patients were shredded to cover up the problems.
In a statement, VA officials in the department’s central office promised a full investigation into the allegations.
“VA sent a team of clinical experts to Phoenix to review appointment scheduling procedures at that facility and the existence of any delays in care,” the statement said. “If these reviews find any areas that need to be improved, VA will address them swiftly, as our mission is to provide the best care possible to our veterans.”
Local VA officials in the Phoenix system acknowledged “longstanding issues with veterans accessing care” but said that veterans’ wait times have significantly improved in recent years. They said they are cooperating with the VA inspector general’s investigation into the allegations.
Veterans groups were appalled by the reports.
In a statement, American Legion National Commander Daniel Dellinger said that if true, the allegations amount to “the most abhorrent acts ever committed in VA history” and “a new low in a string of breakdowns at VA medical centers.”
Veterans of Foreign Wars National Commander William Thien said there is “zero trust in [Phoenix officials’] ability to lead, much less to properly care for America’s heroes.”
The inspector general’s office has not released a timetable for when its review of the Phoenix allegations will be finished.
Earlier this month, VA officials acknowledged that delays in cancer treatment consultations may have played a role in the deaths of 23 veterans and compromised the health of 53 others, according to preliminary results of an internal review into how care consultations are handled.