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VA misled on number of deaths tied to care delays, congressman charges

By Nelli Black and Curt Devine, CNN Investigations Unit
updated 6:43 PM EDT, Tue August 5, 2014
The chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee is accusing the VA of misleading Congress and the public by manipulating data.
The chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee is accusing the VA of misleading Congress and the public by manipulating data.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Rep. Jeff Miller accuses the VA of "what appears to be an attempt to mislead"
  • Chairman of key House panel says the VA gave questionable information on a fact sheet
  • Miller: "VA scandal was created by selfish bureaucrats who lied in order to hide problems"
  • Robert McDonald is the new VA chief; Eric Shinseki resigned after series of CNN stories

Washington (CNN) -- The chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee is accusing the VA of "what appears to be an attempt to mislead Congress and the public" by manipulating the number of veterans who died as a result of delays in care.

In a letter to the VA secretary, Chairman Jeff Miller says the VA gave questionable information on a fact sheet distributed during a briefing to his committee in April and has consistently repeated that information in congressional testimony and to journalists.

The VA's "fact sheet" from April 7 confirms 76 patients were harmed as a result of delays in gastrointestinal care and "of these 76 patients, 23 have passed away," citing a "national review ...of all consults since 1999."

But more recent documents from the VA sent to Miller, a Florida Republican, show those deaths actually came from a much shorter period, from 2010 to 2012, which may indicate there could be more deaths because of delays than the VA has reported.

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Even former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki repeated the questionable information during a news briefing on Capitol Hill.

"We went back in time 15 years. Out of that, we probably looked at 250 million consults. That was narrowed down to 76 institutional disclosures, of which there were 23 deaths that had occurred," Shinseki said in May, about two weeks before he resigned because of systemic delays in care and findings that VA schedulers manipulated patient wait times.

In a statement to CNN, Miller said, "The VA scandal was created by selfish bureaucrats who lied in order to hide problems. Now it appears those involved in the creation of this fact sheet, including a number of folks who work in the department's central office headquarters, engaged in a similar sort of reprehensible behavior.

"This is further proof that VA's statistics -- and certain department employees -- simply cannot be trusted. If VA Secretary Robert McDonald can't offer a logical explanation for what happened, he needs to act quickly to hold those responsible for this misdirection accountable."

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CNN reached out late Tuesday afternoon to the VA for comment but hasn't received a response.

CNN has been investigating and publishing reports of wait lists and deaths of veterans across VA hospitals across the country for nearly a year. Since August 2013, CNN has repeatedly requested records from the VA through the Freedom of Information Act, but the agency so far has not provided many key documents.

Miller's letter to McDonald on Monday asks for more information on what he describes as "an incredibly serious matter." Miller requested the VA provide the House Veterans Affairs Committee with details on the total number of deaths and serious ailments caused by health care delays by next week.

To ensure accuracy, Miller asked the VA to clarify whether the numbers provided are "self-reported" because of evidence of widespread data manipulation at many VA facilities.

Miller also asked that the VA share the names of the employees responsible for creating and reviewing the fact sheet that stated the 23 deaths dated back to 1999.

"Our committee has learned that none of the deaths identified by the review of high interest consults occurred prior to 2010," Miller said. "By name, what specific person is was responsible ...?"

Miller learned that the 23 deaths occurred from 2010 and 2012 in a letter he received in July from the VA's then interim under secretary for health, Dr. Carolyn Clancy. That letter also reported 24 deaths, instead of the previous 23, perhaps indicating another veteran has died since April.

Clancy's letter also stated 20 veterans in Columbia, South Carolina, and seven veterans in Augusta, Georgia, suffered "death or serious injury" because of delays in colonoscopies and endoscopies. A lack of gastrointestinal doctors and an inefficient "tracking" system caused the delays, among other factors, according to her letter.

In a response to a previous question from Miller about how the VA disciplined those responsible for the delays in Columbia and Augusta, Clancy wrote that the chief of staff at the Augusta VA medical center received "verbal counseling" and voluntarily stepped down.

An employee in Columbia, whose name was redacted, "received a reprimand and continues to be employed at the medical center," and two other employees there voluntary retired, according to the letter.

The letter does not say any employees in Columbia or Augusta have been fired because of the delays in patient care.

The VA's letter also said delays in gastrointestinal appointments in Columbia and Augusta have been resolved, but data recently released from the VA shows that about 11,000 patients in Columbia are waiting more than 30 days for various appointments and about 3,000 in Augusta are waiting this long.

A recent report compiled by the office of Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, found that more than 1,000 veterans might have died in the past decade as a result of malpractice or lack of care from VA medical centers.

In his confirmation hearing in July, McDonald vowed to transform the embattled federal health care system.

"The seriousness of this moment demands urgent action," McDonald wrote in his testimony.

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