WASHINGTON (Reuters) - 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 internal 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 is working to contact all of these people to try to expedite their care. With more than 1,700 clinics, hospitals and other facilities serving some 8.9 million veterans, the VA operates the largest U.S. healthcare system.
Lawmakers from both parties expressed outrage at the latest findings, which deepen the political problems that the controversy presents to President Barack Obama and his 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 in a tight re-election contest in North Carolina, a state where many military retirees live.
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 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 suspended bonus awards for the 2014 fiscal year ending Sept. 30.
The agency also said it will 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. A VA official said $300 million would be shifted within the agency’s budget to pay for the medical care blitz.
“This data shows the extent of the systemic problems we face, problems that demand immediate actions,” VA acting Secretary Sloan Gibson said in a statement.
The report made no mention of whether the long wait times had resulted in deaths of veterans. Doctors at VA clinics in Phoenix, where the investigations were first launched, have alleged that some 40 veterans have died while waiting for care.
Reporting By David Lawder and Emily Stephenson; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Mohammad Zargham