UPDATE 2-U.S. veterans health probe confirms cover-up of care delays

Wed May 28, 2014 7:54pm EDT

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(Recasts with details on broadened probes, new McCain comments)

By David Lawder and Roberta Rampton

WASHINGTON May 28 (Reuters) - Calls for U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign grew louder on Wednesday as the agency's inspector general confirmed "systemic" and widespread VA scheduling abuses to cover up long wait times for veterans' healthcare.

The Department of Veterans Affairs' internal watchdog is probing manipulation of appointment data at 42 VA medical centers, up from 26 last week, it said in an interim report on allegations of secret waiting lists.

"Our reviews at a growing number of VA medical facilities have thus far provided insight into the current extent of these inappropriate scheduling issues throughout the VA health care system," the VA Inspector General's Office said.

The office also said it has confirmed that "inappropriate scheduling practices are systemic" throughout the Veterans Health Administration.

The report confirmed allegations that staff at VA medical facilities in Phoenix significantly understated months-long wait times for healthcare appointments for veterans. It linked these actions to performance appraisals, bonus awards and salary increases for VA executives.

The findings prompted some Republicans and Democrats who had withheld judgment on Shinseki to call for his immediate resignation.

"If Secretary Shinseki does not step down voluntarily, then I call on the president of the United States to relieve him of his duties," Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona told a news conference in Phoenix.

"These allegations are not just administrative problems, these are criminal problems, added McCain, who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam.

Democratic Senator Mark Udall, who is on the Armed Services Committee and faces a tough race in November midterm elections, also called for Shinseki to quit, as did House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon.

Shinseki, a retired four-star Army general, has headed the VA since early 2009. The inspector general said it has filed 18 reports on VA patient scheduling deficiencies since 2005.

In Phoenix, the inspector general said it identified 1,700 veterans who were waiting for a primary care appointment but who did not appear on the agency's electronic waiting list.

The inspector general said a sample of 226 veterans waited on average 115 days for their first primary care appointment at Phoenix-area clinics, far longer than the 26-day average reported by the Phoenix VA and the department's 14-day goal.

But the Inspector General's Office said it needed more information to determine whether the appointment delays resulted in delayed diagnosis or treatment, or any deaths. VA doctors in Phoenix have said some 40 veterans had died while waiting for care.

FINDINGS "TROUBLING," "REPREHENSIBLE"

President Barack Obama "found the findings extremely troubling," White House spokeswoman Jessica Santillo said, adding that the VA must take immediate steps to contact veterans waiting for care.

Last week Obama said Shinseki's job could be on the line depending on the investigation results.

Shinseki in a statement called the findings "reprehensible" and directed the Phoenix facility to "immediately triage" the veterans to get them care.

Shinseki is conducting his own review of scheduling practices at VA health care facilities nationwide, and was expected to deliver preliminary results from that effort to Obama this week.

(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey, Susan Cornwell and Patricia Zengerle in Washington, and David Schwartz in Phoenix; Editing by Matthew Lewis and Richard Chang)

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