PHOENIX (AP) — Navy veteran Ken Senft turned to the Department of Veterans Affairs for medical care in 2011 after his private insurance grew too costly. It could have been a fatal mistake, he now says.
A few years ago, the 65-year-old had a lesion on his head. He went to a VA clinic near his home outside Phoenix, but he said the doctor told him it could be two years before he might get an appointment with a dermatologist.
So he paid out of pocket to see a private physician. Turns out, he had cancer.
“What if I had waited two years?” Senft said in frustration. “I might be dead.”
Senft’s story comes amid allegations of delayed care and misconduct at VA facilities across the nation.
A probe of operations at the Phoenix VA Health Care System found that about 1,700 veterans in need of care were “at risk of being lost or forgotten” after being kept off an official waiting list. The investigation, initially focused on the Phoenix hospital, found systemic problems in the VA’s sprawling nationwide system, which provides medical care to about 6.5 million veterans annually.
The scathing report by the VA Office of Inspector General released Wednesday increased pressure on VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign.
The top Republican and Democrat in the House, however, weren’t ready to join in those calls. House Speak John Boehner said he is reserving judgment, while Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said she has great respect for Shinseki and firing him would reward those who misled him.
President Barack Obama found report’s findings “extremely troubling,” his spokesman, Jay Carney, said.
“As the president said last week, the VA must not wait for current investigations of VA operations to conclude before taking steps to improve care,” Carney said in a statement.
The interim findings confirmed allegations of excessive delayed care in Phoenix, with an average 115-day wait for a first appointment for those on the waiting list. That’s nearly five times longer than the Phoenix hospital system had reported to national VA administrators.
“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,” Richard J. Griffin, the department’s acting inspector general, wrote in the 35-page report. It found that “inappropriate scheduling practices are systemic throughout” some 1,700 VA health facilities nationwide, including 150 hospitals and more than 800 clinics.
Griffin said 42 centers are now under investigation.
“What makes me angry is the fact that there are a lot of veterans who couldn’t afford to do what I did, and it would have been too late for them,” said Senft, who was wounded during the Vietnam War. “It’s just a disappointment when you serve your country and you expect to get good medical care — and you just don’t.”
Several Republican lawmakers and a handful of Democrats have called for Shinseki’s resignation.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., also have called for criminal probes.
“I believe that this issue has reached a level that requires the Justice Department involvement. These allegations are not just administrative problems. These are criminal problems,” McCain said during a news conference.
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.”
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.