18 more vets dead as legislators pen VA reform bill

Eighteen more military veterans are dead in the ongoing Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) secret waitlist saga, prompting action from legislators as the White House continues to hunt for new leaders within the department.

The additional deaths come out of the Phoenix area, where veterans' names were kept off the official electronic appointment records, acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson said Thursday, the Dallas Morning News reported, although it is uncertain whether those deaths were directly related to long wait times and care delays. That's in addition to the 17 deaths acting VA Inspector General Richard Griffin reported in a Senate committee hearing last month.

Gibson also announced the VA will release the findings of its nationwide audit Monday, and will take immediate action to address some of the issues revealed directly, such as eliminating the 14-day appointment goal, to remove incentives for employees to game the system and give the appearance of timely care. 

"The Inspector General confirmed we have serious issues when it comes to patient scheduling and access, and we have moved immediately to address those issues in Phoenix.  VA has reached out to all Veterans identified in the Office of Inspector General's interim report to discuss individual medical needs and immediately begin scheduling appointments," Gibson said in the announcement.

The investigation into misconduct at the VA began after allegations in April that as many as 40 veterans died due to delays in care at a Phoenix VA hospital, where a secret waitlist hid more than 1,500 veterans waiting for care.

The announcement came as legislators in the Senate agreed on the outline for a bipartisan bill expanding veterans' access to care outside the VA hospitals and clinics, The Guardian reported.

Senate VA Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) announced the agreement on the bill, which would let veterans who wait 30 days or more for an appointment or who live at least 40 miles from a VA facility to use private doctors as providers for government programs, according to the article. It would also mean the VA could fire up to 450 hospital executives and administrators for poor performance.

In an effort to improve access to care, the bill allocates $500 million to hire more doctors and nurses within the system and authorizes the VA to lease 26 new facilities in 18 states, The Guardian reported.

Amid the developments, President Barack Obama's top pick to chair the Veterans Health Administration, Jeffrey Murawsky, withdrew his nomination Thursday, citing fears his confirmation would "spark a prolonged political battle," CBS DC reported.

Murawsky, the healthcare chief for the VA's Chicago-based regional office, was nominated to replace Robert Petzel, who resigned from the administration after the scandal broke. The VA is required to create a commission to find a candidate for the position, which oversees the Veterans Health Administration, which cares for 9 million patients, 150 hospitals and 820 walk-in clinics, according to CBS DC.

Meanwhile, reports said the administration is considering Cleveland Clinic President and CEO Delos "Toby" Cosgrove to succeed former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, who resigned at the end of May after a scathing report revealed treatment delays, mismanagement and falsified records within the VA system. Obama appointed Gibson as acting secretary until he finds a permanent replacement, FierceHealthcare reported.

To learn more:
- here's the Dallas Morning News article
- read Gibson's announcement
- read The Guardian story
- check out the CBS DC piece