Continued delays for veterans at Phoenix VA system, report shows

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(Source: KPHO/KTVK) (Source: KPHO/KTVK)
MESA, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) -

Veterans still are dying while awaiting care at the Phoenix VA Health Care System, according to Department of Veterans Affairs Inspector General report released Tuesday.

The Phoenix system was at the center of a national scandal in 2014 when Veterans Affairs internal investigations identified 35 veterans who died while awaiting care. Veterans on secret waiting lists reportedly faced scheduling delays of up to a year.

The Inspector General's report said the VA Office reviewed more recent allegations that the Phoenix system's staff "inappropriately discontinued and canceled consults, management provided staff inappropriate direction, patients died waiting for consultative appointments, more than 35,000 patients were waiting for consults" as of August 2015.

Consults include appointments, lab tests, teleconferencing and other planned patient contacts.

As of July 2016, there reportedly were 38,000 open consults at the Phoenix VA.

[Online: Inspector General report]

"The budget for the VA has increased substantially, but we aren't seeing that trickle down to the veteran, where it matters," former Army Medic Matt Dobson said. He now runs the Arizona office of the Concerned Veterans for America organization.

"I waited eight or nine months for care. Every month they'd say my appointment was canceled and rescheduled," he said, recalling his attempt to get care following a deployment to Afghanistan.

"More than two years after the Phoenix VA Health Care System became ground zero for VA's wait-time scandal, many of its original problems remain, and this report is proof of that sad fact," U.S. House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller said in a statement. "It's clear veterans are still dying while waiting for care, that delays may have contributed to the recent death of at least one veteran and the work environment in Phoenix is marred by confusion and dysfunction."

Miller didn't release any other information about veterans who died.

Phoenix VA officials declined to comment, but released a statement, which says, in part:

"VA is strongly committed to developing long-term solutions that mitigate risks to the timeliness, cost-effectiveness, and quality of care provided through the Veterans Health Administration (VHA). Over the last few years VA has been implementing action plans to address many of the issues outlined in this report."

Arizona's senators immediately weighed in:

"The VA OIG's report confirming that VA employees improperly closed-out medical consultations at the Phoenix VA to make their statistics look better is simply unacceptable. We should all be alarmed that more than two years after the scandal in care first erupted at the Phoenix VA, such reprehensible behavior continues to take place, putting the health of our veterans at risk," Sen. John McCain and Jeff Flake said in a joint statement.

"Today, we have even more reason for outrage over the poor leadership, understaffing and lack of communication and coordination at the Phoenix VA," said U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Ariz.

"They're the ones who can change it. They have power over the VA," Dobson said, referring to members of Congress criticizing the new VA report.

The Concerned Veterans for America group supports new legislation, including the Caring for Our Heroes in the 21st Century Act, which would create more choices for veterans.

"And the VA Accountability Act would allow the Secretary of the VA to fire employees due to misconduct. Not one person has been fired [for the scandal in Phoenix]," Dobson said.

The Phoenix system enrolls about 85,000 veterans and announced last week the hiring of yet another new director since the 2014 firing of Sharon Helman.

"VA's performance in Phoenix and across the nation will never improve until there are consequences up and down the chain of command for these and other persistent failures," Miller said. "Unfortunately, given that this report is largely devoid of clear lines of accountability to those responsible for Phoenix VAHCS's current problems, it is unlikely these issues will be solved anytime soon."

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Copyright 2016 KPHO/KTVK (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.

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