WASHINGTON - The U.S. Veterans Affairs Department says investigators have found no proof that delays in care caused any deaths at a hospital run by the agency, deflating an explosive allegation that helped expose a troubled health care system in which veterans waited months for appointments while employees falsified records to cover up the delays.
Revelations that as many as 40 veterans died while awaiting care at the hospital in the southwestern city of Phoenix rocked the agency last spring, bringing to light scheduling problems and allegations of misconduct at other hospitals as well. The scandal led to the resignation of former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. In July, Congress approved spending an additional $16 billion to help shore up the system.
The VA's Office of Inspector General has been investigating the delays for months and shared a draft report of its findings with VA officials.
In a written memorandum about the report, VA Secretary Robert A. McDonald said, "It is important to note that while OIG's case reviews in the report document substantial delays in care, and quality-of-care concerns, OIG was unable to conclusively assert that the absence of timely quality care caused the death of these veterans."
McDonald acknowledged that the VA is "in the midst of a very serious crisis." He also promised to follow all recommendations from the inspector general's report.
The inspector general's final report has not yet been issued. The inspector general runs an independent office within the VA.
In April, Dr. Samuel Foote, who had worked for the Phoenix VA for more than 20 years before retiring in December, brought the allegations to Congress.
Foote accused Arizona VA leaders of collecting bonuses for reducing patient wait times. But, he said, the purported successes resulted from data manipulation rather than improved service for veterans. He said up to 40 patients died while awaiting care.
Congress approved $10 billion in emergency spending over three years to pay private doctors and other health professionals to care for veterans who can't get timely appointments at VA medical facilities, or who live more than 40 miles (64 kilometres) from one.
The legislation also makes it easier to fire hospital administrators and senior VA executives for negligence or poor performance.
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