More than 100,000 veterans are experiencing waits of more than 90 days for appointments at medical centers run by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, according to an internal audit
released by the troubled agency on Monday.
The survey revealed that a scandal over cover-ups of long wait times at VA clinics, during which some veterans are alleged to have died, was broader and deeper than initially thought, prompting a new round of recriminations from lawmakers and veterans groups.
The agency said staff at 76 percent of facilities surveyed reported that they were instructed to misrepresent appointment data at least once.
The VA said it found that in mid-May, 57,436 veterans were waiting for appointments that could not be scheduled within 90 days, while about 43,000 had appointments more than 90 days in the future.
Over the past 10 years, 63,869 new enrollees in the VA healthcare system had requested appointments that were never scheduled, VA said.
The agency said it was working to contact all of those people to try to expedite their care. With more than 1,700 clinics, hospitals and other facilities serving 8.9 million veterans, the VA operates the largest U.S. healthcare system.
Lawmakers from both parties expressed outrage at the findings, which deepen the political problems the controversy presents to President Barack Obama and fellow Democrats as they try to keep control of the U.S. Senate in November elections.
“The results of the VA's report are appalling and disturbing,” said Senator Kay Hagan, a Democrat who is in a tight re-election contest in North Carolina, a state that is home to many military retirees.
Republican House Speaker John Boehner called the findings “a national disgrace” and said the House of Representatives would pass a measure this week to allow veterans to seek private care at VA expense if they were forced to wait more than 30 days for an appointment.
The VA said it was abandoning a two-week scheduling goal for appointments after finding it was “not attainable,” and it suspended bonus awards for the 2014 fiscal year ending Sept. 30.
The agency also said it would take emergency steps to rush medical care to veterans, including hiring temporary staff, keeping clinics open later, sending more patients to private care providers and bringing in mobile medical units to some locations. It will freeze hiring at headquarters offices.
Last week, VA acting Secretary Sloan Gibson said that at least 18 Arizona veterans had died while waiting for appointments.
An official with the Government Accountability Office, a watchdog agency, said on Monday that a GAO review had identified one veteran who died earlier this year before obtaining needed care.
The patient needed endovascular surgery to repair two aneurysms that were diagnosed in September 2013, GAO's healthcare director, Debra Draper, said in testimony to the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
The surgery was set for November, then canceled due to VA staffing issues, she said. The VA then referred the patient to a local hospital, but there was another delay when the patient's information was lost by the “non-VA provider,” Draper said.
The patient died of cardiac disease and hypertension the day before the surgery was to take place on Feb. 14, she said.