Veterans seeking mental health care through the El Paso VA system were forced to wait more than two months just to get an appointment, a delay five times longer than the Veterans Affairs Department's official estimates, according to a study released Wednesday by a congressman from Texas.
More than one-third of veterans surveyed who tried to schedule an appointment at the El Paso facility couldn't get one, and appointments were canceled in many cases, said the study, released by Rep. Beto O'Rourke, a Democrat.
Statistics show 22 veterans a day are committing suicide and many are putting off mental health services altogether because of difficulties in getting appointments, the study said.
"The results substantiate the individual anecdotes I have long heard from El Pasoans and directly contradict the assurances of acceptable access and quality from the VA in Washington and the [Veterans Health Administration] in El Paso," Mr. O'Rourke wrote in the report.
The revelation was made as a VA health care scandal grows beyond the Phoenix facility that sparked inquiries. VA facilities across the country are coming under scrutiny, and whistleblowers are reporting that secret wait lists, long wait times and botched scheduling are endemic.
VA officials found two more secret wait lists that put veterans "at risk" at facilities in the Midwest, according to a letter sent May 29 to Sens. Jerry Moran and Pat Roberts, Kansas Republicans.
Medical centers in the Midwest said they would contact about 100 veterans on these unauthorized wait lists as soon as possible to schedule care, the letter said.
Congress is scrambling for legislation to reform the system. Sen. Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent and chairman of the Veterans Affairs' Committee, is the Democrats' chief negotiator on the issue. He is trying to strike a deal with Sen. John McCain of Arizona, one of the authors of a Republican plan to reduce waiting times by letting some veterans seek private care financed by the federal government.
Mr. Sanders has his own bill that would give veterans some flexibility to seek care outside the VA and would give the next Veterans Affairs secretary more power to fire top executives. It also would make broader changes such as expanded access to alternative medicine and changes to GI Bill benefits.
"There may be differences of approaches, but I think frankly those differences can be worked out," Mr. Sanders said.
The House last month passed a bill giving the VA secretary more power to fire senior executives.
In a letter Wednesday to President Obama, House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, and his top lieutenants asked the president to encourage Senate Democrats to support the House legislation.
They said Mr. Obama should take immediate steps to have the VA contact veterans who have waited too long for care and to schedule appointments quickly, even if it means sending veterans outside the VA system.
"All veterans on waiting lists should be able to easily access care outside the VA without waiting for a potentially corrupt facility to approve their request," the letter said.
The House Republican leaders also asked the president to demand that the VA comply with congressional oversight requests.
In the El Paso case, Mr. O'Rourke said his office would continue to look into a "large discrepancy" between the VA's reported wait times and what veterans are experiencing.
Mr. O'Rourke said the Phoenix situation resonates with lawmakers from across the country who have been hearing similar reports about facilities in their states.
"It confirms what many of us have known in one way or another for quite a while, which is that what the VA is reporting and what veterans in districts we represent are telling us are two very different things," Mr. O'Rourke said in a telephone interview.
He said he plans to introduce a bill to survey veterans at VA facilities across the country because "you cannot ask how the VA is doing and expect an honest answer."
His legislation would help pay for the surveys by suspending bonuses to senior VA executives.
Questions about the accuracy of the VA data aren't new. In one of a series of audits from 2005 to 2008, the VA reported 2,900 veterans waiting for more than a month for medical appointments, but the actual figure was around 28,000.
The VA inspector general's office offered several recommendations to resolve the problems, including testing the accuracy of wait time data, but the VA rejected the suggestions in 2008, under the George W. Bush administration.
VA officials informed the incoming Obama-Biden transition team about the problems in late 2008, noting that VA-reported wait times "could not be relied upon.
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