Report: VA misled Congress, public on scope of scandal

The Veterans Health Administration's claims about delays in care endured by veterans--and their deadly consequences--was "misleading" and contained inaccuracies, according to a new report by the VA's Office of Inspector General (OIG).

Last spring a CNN report about care delays at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs facility led to a nationwide scandal affecting tens of thousands of veterans and revealed that facilities kept secret wait lists to conceal their shortfalls. The scandal, which took down VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, deepened with accusations of retaliation against whistleblowers, all the while igniting a political firestorm.

The OIG produced its latest report to verify the claims made in a VHA fact sheet released in April, claiming that only 76 veterans suffered serious harm and 23 died while waiting months or years for care since 1999. The OIG found the following issues with these claims:

  • The VHA fact sheet said it reviewed cases going back to 1999, but facilities actually reviewed cases only going back to 2007.
  • The VHA may have either overstated or understated the number of deaths caused by the delays, and in one case attributed to the wrong facility an "institutional disclosure" of a delay causing severe harm.
  • The VHA doesn't support the fact sheet's claim that the "vast majority" of unresolved requests for care from veterans were due to records issues instead of actual treatment delays. On the contrary, the OIG noted that most staff at VA facilities it consulted believed the unresolved cases were due to true treatment delays.

VHA leadership also repeated the claims made in the fact sheet in multiple briefings before Congress as well as in statements to the media, the OIG report states.

"VA's statistics regarding the number of veterans harmed by department delays in care are almost certainly wildly inaccurate and we may never know the actual number of veterans affected by gaps in the VA system that existed for years," Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, said in a statement in response to the OIG report, CNN reported.

Though it is charged with monitoring the VHA, the VA's OIG itself has come under fire amid claims of bias in its report issued in August that found no evidence that care delays at the embattled Phoenix VA directly resulted in patient deaths, FierceHealthcare previously reported.

Nevertheless, investigations into VA facilities are unlikely to end anytime soon, as the OIG's report recommends that the Interim Under Secretary for Health "conduct a systematic assessment" of the processes each VA medical facility used to address unresolved requests for care as well as ensure patients actually receive treatment if the investigation proves processes were subpar. 

To learn more:
- check out the report (pdf)
- read the CNN article