Audit: More than 57,000 await initial VA visits

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.

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.

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