- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The VA’s internal auditor admitted Wednesday that it didn’t review the cases of 5,600 veterans who were on waiting lists for appointments, so it’s possible some of them could have died as a result of the botched care.

Physician John Daigh, the assistant inspector general for health care inspections, told the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee that a group of veterans who didn’t have any medical records weren’t included in their most recent audit. The admission called into question the inspector general’s conclusion that no patient deaths could “conclusively” be linked to the waiting lists.

“We did not examine all the records of patients on the NEAR list, people who said they wanted care at the VA, if they never actually made it through the maze and got the appointment,” he said.

The New Enrollee Appointment Request, or NEAR, list includes veterans who requested an appointment but were never seen by a doctor. They were never entered into the VA’s system, so they have no medical records that can be reviewed, Dr. Daigh said.

Lawmakers said it was inexcusable that thousands of veterans waiting for care weren’t even counted.

“Thousands and thousands and thousands of veterans are waiting for care and your report says, well we don’t count them because they died before we got their records,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, Kansas Republican. “I fear there are more veterans that died because of that wait.”

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Dr. Daigh also said the wait lists did contribute to deaths, but could not say they were the cause since a number of other factors, like underlying health problems or visits at other hospitals, could effect a patient’s outcome.

“To know why someone died is very difficult,” he said. “You might like to believe [that] but for going to the psychiatrist or the primary care doc, that event wouldn’t have occurred, but in the world where we try to prove and have data to support what we’re saying, we have a hard time going there.”

New VA Secretary Robert McDonald, though, declined to give a yes or no answer when asked if wait lists and poor care contributed to, if not caused, some deaths. Instead he said poor care “has adverse effects.”

The inspector general released a report in August that found systemic scheduling problems and poor care at the Phoenix VA facility where allegations of patients dying while waiting for an appointment surfaced earlier this year.

Despite these findings, the report said that it could not conclusively say that the care was a direct cause of the 293 patient deaths. Lawmakers have been critical of the report, alleging that officials at the VA demanded that the inspector general reach the conclusion to rid the department of some blame in the scandal.

Mr. McDonald said in prepared testimony that the VA is looking at the “appropriateness” of notifying the families of dead veterans whose cases were reviewed by the inspector general.

Richard Griffin, the VA’s acting inspector general, said a criminal investigation, including the FBI and Department of Justice, is currently underway and action will be taken if any criminal actions are discovered.

But some lawmakers questioned whether the investigation will be fair.

“It does seem like the Department of Justice is looking the other way because obviously the situation is embarrassing to the administration,” said Rep. Mike Coffman, Colorado Republican.

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