Months after Veterans Affairs Department officials said 35 veterans on a secret waiting list at the VA Medical Center in Phoenix died, investigators said the deaths weren't caused by delays in care.
That's according to a preliminary report released Tuesday afternoon by the VA's Office of the Inspector General.
"While the case reviews in this report document poor quality of care, we are unable to conclusively assert that the absence of timely quality care caused the deaths of these veterans," a summary of the 143-page document states. Even so, "Inappropriate scheduling practices are a nationwide systemic problem," it states.
Earlier in the day, an agency official said the department wouldn't be making a statement on the IG's findings until the final report was released.
In May, VA Acting Inspector General told lawmakers the IG was looking into 17 deaths of veterans whose names were on the secret wait list in Phoenix. A month later Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson said another 18 deceased veterans were found to have been on the unauthorized list, bringing the number to 35.
Schedulers at the Phoenix hospital were found to be using an unauthorized list of veterans awaiting care. The list was kept so that the actual number of veterans waiting for an appointment could be concealed.
Subsequent investigation by the VA found that other VA facilities were engaging in the same practice.
Whistleblowers who first revealed the secret wait list at Phoenix to CNN in May had estimated 40 veterans had died while awaiting care.
Confirmation of the secret lists fueled a drive by veterans groups and lawmakers to improve veterans' access to care and make it easier to fire executives found to be mismanaging their facilities or engaging in unethical behavior.
Congress in late July passed a $16.3 billion bill that includes funds for adding medical personnel and expanding VA services through new leases with medical centers and clinics across the country. It also gives the VA secretary the increased authority to fire and discipline managers.
Officials have already said that anyone found to have deliberately manipulated the appointments scheduling system and benefited from it by pulling down a bonus for efficiency will be held accountable, including possibly face criminal charges.
The interim findings noted in the latest draft report reiterate what the IG has said previously – that while the deceased veterans had been on the secret list they had found no actual evidence that their deaths were caused by a delay in care.
Gibson, who has returned to his job as Deputy Secretary with the July confirmation of Robert McDonald as the new head of VA, told AP that the IG's inability to find a causal link between a delay in care and veterans deaths does not mean what happened at Phoenix was okay.
"Veterans were waiting too long for care and there were things being done, there were scheduling improprieties happening at Phoenix and frankly at other locations as well. Those are unacceptable," he said.
-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org