The Justice Department and the FBI have joined the VA Inspector General to investigate allegations of obstruction of justice at dozens of veterans hospitals across the country, according to a long-awaited report released Tuesday.
The report by the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General said 93 VA health care sites across the country are being investigated in connection with falsifying scheduling records to hide delays in veterans' health care and "attempting to obstruct OIG (Office of Inspector General) and other investigative efforts." The Justice Department and FBI are involved in the probe, the report said.
"These investigations confirmed wait time manipulations were prevalent throughout" the VA health system, the report said.
The document cited a "breakdown of the ethics system" within the VA health care program.
"The report cannot capture the personal disappointment, frustration and loss of faith of individual veterans and their family members with a health care system that often could not respond to their mental and physical needs in a timely matter," the report said.
Read Full Report:VA Review of Phoenix Heatlh Care System
The VA system of 150 hospitals and 820 clinics serves about 6 million veterans each year.
The Inspector General report focused largely on problems at the VA hospital in Phoenix, the epicenter of the scandal. Reports of deaths among veterans awaiting care first surfaced there, but investigators said they have not found conclusive evidence linking the deaths to delayed care.
Investigators found thousands of veterans in Phoenix hospital who were not being seen by doctors and whose names were kept on secret lists to hide them from official records that might reflect scheduling delays. The VA has since worked to contact nearly all veterans whose care was delayed to either get them to a VA physician or pay for their care by private doctors.
Investigators said hospital executives and senior clinical staff were aware that false scheduling practices were being used.
Investigators learned that dozens of Phoenix VA scheduling staffers penciled into records the wrong dates or "fixed" other appointment data to mask delays in care. Some workers said they were instructed to do so by superiors.
Sharon Helman, the hospital director who has been placed on administrative leave with two other senior colleagues, instituted a program during 2013 billed as an effort to improve access for veterans, In fact, it was misleading and filled with inaccurate or unsupported data, the report said.
The anticipated release of the findings prompted VA officials to prepare a full-court public relations response ahead of time. Selected media were granted interviews with top VA officials days in advance. President Obama delivered a speech before the American Legion Tuesday in Charlotte heralding steps to correct failings.
Talking points and a press release emphasized apologizing for what went wrong but also highlighting the investigation's finding that none of the dozens of deaths of veterans waiting for care at the Phoenix VA hospital could be linked conclusively to the delays.
Dr. Sam Foote, a crucial whistle-blower in the scandal who worked at the Phoenix VA hospital and is now retired, said Tuesday that up to 63 veterans died while awaiting care at the hospital.
The scandal caught fire in April when Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, disclosed during a hearing on problems at the Phoenix facility that "it appears there could be as many as 40 veterans whose deaths could be related to delays of care."
Miller issued a statement in reaction to Obama's speech Tuesday, saying that so far no one has been fired in the scandal. "What we need from the president right now is more follow-through and less flash when it comes to helping veterans," Miller said.
Allegations emerged of veterans kept waiting months to see a doctor, their names kept off official waiting lists and tabulated in secret; and of appointment data being altered to make health care performance results look better.
As the VA's Inspector General launched an investigation, later joined by investigators from the Justice Department, whistle-blowers at VA hospitals and clinics across the country came forward to describe similar patterns.
A preliminary report issued in May concluded that the problems of delayed care and manipulated records were systemic. Then-VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned May 30 and his chosen replacement, Robert McDonald, was confirmed by the Senate in July.