About 1,700 veterans in need of care were "at risk of being lost or forgotten" after being kept off the official wait list at the troubled Phoenix veterans hospital, the Veterans Affairs watchdog said Wednesday in a scathing report.
The investigation, initially focused on the Phoenix hospital, found systemic problems at the VA's sprawling system that provides medical care to about 6.5 million veterans each year.
The interim report confirmed allegations of excessive waiting time for care in Phoenix, with an average 115-day wait for a first appointment for those on the wait list.
"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. The report found that "inappropriate scheduling practices are systemic throughout" the nationwide VA health care system.
Colorado Sen. Mark Udall on Wednesday became the first Democratic senator to call for VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to leave. "We need new leadership who will demand accountability to fix these problems," Udall said.
Griffin said his office is now investigating 42 VA health care facilities nationwide. Investigators will seek to determine whether names of veterans awaiting care were purposely omitted from electronic waiting lists and at whose direction.
He said investigators at some of the other 42 facilities "have identified instances of manipulation of VA data that distort the legitimacy of reported waiting times."
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.
"I knew about all of this all along," Foote told The Associated Press in an interview. "The only thing I can say is you can't celebrate the fact that vets were being denied care."
Foote took issue with the finding by the inspector general that patients had, on average, waited 115 days for their first medical appointment. "I don't think that number is correct. It was much longer," he said. "It seemed to us to be about six months."