The plight of American military veterans trying to access their health care benefits has raised temperatures nationwide. A former physician with the Phoenix Veterans Affairs (VA) Health Care system provided documents and emails showing how local VA leaders covered up lengthy wait times for veterans and in so doing contributed to at least 40 deaths, CNN reported on Wednesday. Meanwhile the American Legion released fiscal 2014's second quarter figures showing how some regional offices of the VA averaged more than 300 days when deciding disability claims for veterans.
For the past six months, CNN has been reporting on delays in health care appointments veterans endure across the country. The so-called secret list instituted by VA administrators in Phoenix has been found to be particularly heinous. Dr. Sam Foote, a recently retired VA doctor, as well as other sources told the news bureau that anywhere from 1,400 to 1,600 sick veterans have been forced to wait months to see their doctors as their conditions worsened and, in the worst cases, died. Foote, who worked for 24 years within the VA system in Phoenix, told CNN that the VA office maintained two lists for patient appointments. The list shared with Washington showed veterans receiving timely appointments; the real list, though, showed true wait times for appointments lasting more than a year.
Prompted by requests from Arizona Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake, Chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Bernie Sanders has voiced congressional concerns regarding the inspector general investigation, which is currently underway. “We, as a nation, have a commitment to provide timely, quality health care to veterans, and I am determined to assist VA in meeting this responsibility,” Sanders, I-Vermont, told Marine Corp Times.
Outrage has also been expressed by American Legion National Commander Daniel M. Dellinger, who has decided to send a team from his organization’s System Worth Saving Task Force to Phoenix next month to give local veterans a chance to discuss the quality of their VA health care experience. The team is expected to interview administrators, medical staff, and patients.
Meanwhile, the Legion released figures assembled by the VA for fiscal 2014's second quarter that show an increase in the number and quality of fully developed claims (FDCs) being submitted nationwide. Schools conducted twice a year by the Legion have recently focused their training on FDCs. Because they include more up-front documentation than traditional disability claims, FDCs move through the VA adjudication system much more swiftly. While traditional claims can take more than 300 days to be developed and decided, FDCs handled by the Legion take an average of 136 days.
Zachary Hearn, the Legion’s deputy director of benefits, said that the worst VA regional offices (VAROs) — Seattle, Wash.; Baltimore, Md.; Reno, Nev.; Detroit, Mich.; and Oakland, Calif. — took, on average, between 226 and 245 days to develop and decide benefits on a fully developed claim or FDC; and between 312 and 335 days to decide on a traditional disability claim. He also noted the best VAROs averaged less than 90 days. These offices are located in White River Junction, Vt.; Milwaukee, Wis.; Manila, Philippines; Fort Harrison, Mont.; and St. Paul, Minn.
Regarding the Phoenix debacle, the inspector general’s office has not yet said when its official review of allegations might be concluded. According to preliminary results of an internal review, VA officials acknowledged that delays in cancer treatment consultations may have played a role in the deaths of 23 veterans and compromised the health of 53 others, Marine Corp Times reported.