The top watchdog for the Veterans Affairs Department said Tuesday that it appears that the majority of the 93 VA facilities now under investigation were intentionally manipulating data, which could lead to a fresh round of drama for the embattled agency.
Richard Griffin, the acting VA inspector general, told members of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee that his staff believes that no manipulation occurred in about a fourth of the facilities under investigation, but "on the other three-fourths, we're pretty confident that it was knowingly and willingly happening, and we're pursuing those."
The VA's Office of Inspector General has been investigating VA medical facilities after allegations of data manipulation and veteran deaths at the Phoenix facility surfaced in April. In the current investigations, officials have found such problems as VA employees canceling medical appointments and then rescheduling them for the same day and time—making a veteran's wait time for an appointment look shorter than it really is.
Asked why the problem had become so widespread, Griffin told the committee, "Frankly, when something is going on for as many years—not everywhere—but at a number of the facilities, it almost becomes the accepted way of doing scheduling."
VA Secretary Robert McDonald also appeared at the hearing, where he apologized for the VA's problems in Phoenix—which happened before he joined the department this summer. McDonald told lawmakers that the Phoenix staffers are in the process of carrying out the IG's recommendations, including hiring more primary care clinicians and getting veterans off wait lists.
A final report released late last month could not "conclusively assert that the absence of timely quality care caused the deaths" of veterans in Phoenix.
Griffin said he hopes that the IG investigations will be wrapped up by the end of the year. If investigators find criminal wrongdoing, they will have to work with the U.S. Attorneys' Office, which will decide whether or not to prosecute.
Before leaving for the August recess, lawmakers passed legislation aimed at fixing some of what ails the VA—including providing more funding for clinicians and facilities and improving veteran access to private health care outside the VA system.
Although senators largely focused Tuesday on the VA's scheduling troubles, they hammered home the message that the department's overall culture has to change.
Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, the committee's ranking member, said the "culture that has developed at VA and the lack of management and accountability is simply reprehensible."