VA says no proof delays in care caused vets to die

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VA says no proof delays in care caused vets to die
HINES, IL - MAY 30: A sign marks the entrance to the Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital on May 30, 2014 in Hines, Illinois. Hines, which is located in suburban Chicago, has been linked to allegations that administrators kept secret waiting lists at Veterans Administration hospitals so hospital executives could collect bonuses linked to meeting standards for rapid treatment. Today, as the scandal continued to grow, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki apologized in public and then resigned from his post. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama delivers a statement after meeting with Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki at the White House in Washington, DC, May 21, 2014. Veterans have had to wait months to see a doctor at some hospitals, and allegations have arisen that administrators at a VA hospital in Phoenix, Arizona, covered up the delays there. As many as 40 patients were reported to have died while waiting to be seen by a VA doctor. AFP PHOTO / Jim WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
This May 19, 2014 photo shows a a sign in front of the Veterans Affairs building in Washington, DC. The VA and Secretary Eric Shinseki are under fire amid reports by former and current VA employees that up to 40 patients may have died because of delayed treatment at an agency hospital in Phoenix, Arizona. AFP PHOTO / Karen BLEIER (Photo credit should read KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama delivers a statement after meeting with Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki at the White House in Washington, DC, May 21, 2014. Veterans have had to wait months to see a doctor at some hospitals, and allegations have arisen that administrators at a VA hospital in Phoenix, Arizona, covered up the delays there. As many as 40 patients were reported to have died while waiting to be seen by a VA doctor. AFP PHOTO / Jim WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Bill Bradshaw, director of national veterans service for the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), listens during a Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, May 15, 2014. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki said he is 'mad as hell' over allegations of treatment delays and cover-ups at VA health clinics in Phoenix and Fort Collins, Colorado. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Senator Bernard 'Bernie' Sanders, an independent from Vermont and chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, makes an opening statement during a hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, May 15, 2014. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki said he is 'mad as hell' over allegations of treatment delays and cover-ups at VA health clinics in Phoenix and Fort Collins, Colorado. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 15: U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki (C) listens to American Legion National Commander Daniel Dellinger (L) speak during a Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee hearing that is focusing on wait times veterans face to get medical care May 15, 2014 in Washington, DC. The American Legion called Monday for the resignation of Shinseki amid reports by former and current VA employees that up to 40 patients may have died because of delayed treatment at an agency hospital in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
FILE--The Phoenix VA Health Care Center in Phoenix, is seen in this Monday, April 28, 2014, file photo. A team of federal investigators swept into the city last month amid allegations of a disturbing cover-up at the veterans hospital, and began interviewing staff at the facility and poring over records, emails and electronic databases.(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Sen. John McCain embraces Gabriel Basso after she shared how her veteran husband died during a forum with veterans on Friday, May 9, 2014, in Phoenix. McCain was discussing lapses in care at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs hospital that prompted a national review of operations around the country. (AP Photo/Matt York)
FILE - Veteran Mark Howey waits to ask a question as Sen. John McCain speaks during a forum with veterans regarding lapses in care at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs hospital, on Friday, May 9, 2014, in Phoenix. Grieving family members of dead veterans have joined politicians from both parties in loud protests over VA care. (AP Photo/Matt York)
Sen. John McCain speaks during a forum with veterans on Friday, May 9, 2014, in Phoenix. McCain was discussing lapses in care at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs hospital that prompted a national review of operations around the country. (AP Photo/Matt York)
Veterans listen as Sen. John McCain speaks during a forum with veterans on Friday, May 9, 2014, in Phoenix. McCain was discussing lapses in care at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs hospital that prompted a national review of operations around the country. (AP Photo/Matt York)
Sen. John McCain listens to complaints from veterans during a forum with veterans on Friday, May 9, 2014, in Phoenix. McCain was discussing lapses in care at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs hospital that prompted a national review of operations around the country. (AP Photo/Matt York)
FILE - Sen. John McCain, left, R-AZ, and Sen. Jeff Flake, R-AZ, hold a news conference to discuss recent reports that dozens of VA hospital patients in Arizona may have died while awaiting medical care in the Phoenix VA Health Care System, adjacent to the VA Hospital in this Friday, April 18, 2014 file photo taken in Phoenix. Growing concerns about allegations of gross mismanagement and neglect at the Phoenix VA Health Care Center have resulted in a commitment by the chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee to hold a hearing, members of Arizona's congressional delegation said Thursday April 24, 2014. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)
FILE - With Vietnam military veteran Chuck Tharp, right, listening in, Sen. John McCain, second from left, R-AZ, and Sen. Jeff Flake, left, R-AZ, finish up a news conference to discuss recent reports that dozens of VA hospital patients in Arizona may have died while awaiting medical care in the Phoenix VA Health Care System, adjacent to the VA Hospital in this Friday, April 18, 2014 file photo taken in Phoenix. Growing concerns about allegations of gross mismanagement and neglect at the Phoenix VA Health Care Center have resulted in a commitment by the chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee to hold a hearing, members of Arizona's congressional delegation said Thursday April 24, 2014. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)
FILE - Sen. Jeff Flake, left, R-AZ, shakes hands and speaks with Vietnam veteran Chuck Tharp, right, after a news conference where Flake and Sen. John McCain, R-AZ, discussed recent reports that dozens of VA hospital patients in Arizona may have died while awaiting medical care in the Phoenix VA Health Care System in this Friday, April 18, 2014 file photo taken in Phoenix. Growing concerns about allegations of gross mismanagement and neglect at the Phoenix VA Health Care Center have resulted in a commitment by the chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee to hold a hearing, members of Arizona's congressional delegation said Thursday April 24, 2014. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)
Joined by military veterans and local politicians, Sen. John McCain, second from right, R-AZ, and Sen. Jeff Flake, far right, R-AZ, hold a news conference to discuss recent reports that dozens of VA hospital patients in Arizona may have died while awaiting medical care in the Phoenix VA Health Care System on Friday, April 18, 2014, in Phoenix. Last week's disclosures by current and former Department of Veterans Affairs employees is leading to investigations by the House Committee on Veterans Affairs and the Inspector General for the VA are looking into not only the deaths, but allegations of falsified record keeping and medical reporting. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
With the VA Hospital in the background, Sen. John McCain, R-AZ, speaks and Sen. Jeff Flake, front right, R-AZ, listens at a news conference to discuss recent reports that dozens of VA hospital patients in Arizona may have died while awaiting medical care in the Phoenix VA Health Care System on Friday, April 18, 2014, in Phoenix. Last week's disclosures by current and former Department of Veterans Affairs employees is leading to investigations by the House Committee on Veterans Affairs and the Inspector General for the VA are looking into not only the deaths, but allegations of falsified record keeping and medical reporting. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
A military veteran stands next to his bicycle as Sen. John McCain, left, R-Az, and Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Az, arrive for a news conference to discuss recent reports that dozens of VA hospital patients in Arizona may have died while awaiting medical care in the Phoenix VA Health Care System, Friday, April 18, 2014, in Phoenix. Last week's disclosures by current and former Department of Veterans Affairs employees is leading to investigations by the House Committee on Veterans Affairs and the Inspector General for the VA are looking into not only the deaths, but allegations of falsified record keeping and medical reporting. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
HINES, IL - MAY 30: A sign marks the entrance to the Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital on May 30, 2014 in Hines, Illinois. Hines, which is located in suburban Chicago, has been linked to allegations that administrators kept secret waiting lists at Veterans Administration hospitals so hospital executives could collect bonuses linked to meeting standards for rapid treatment. Today, as the scandal continued to grow, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki apologized in public and then resigned from his post. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
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By STEPHEN OHLEMACHER

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Department of Veterans Affairs says investigators have found no proof that delays in care caused any deaths at a VA hospital in Phoenix, deflating an explosive allegation that helped expose a troubled health care system in which veterans waited months for appointments while employees falsified records to cover up the delays.

Revelations that as many as 40 veterans died while awaiting care at the Phoenix VA hospital rocked the agency last spring, bringing to light scheduling problems and allegations of misconduct at other hospitals as well. The scandal led to the resignation of former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. In July, Congress approved spending an additional $16 billion to help shore up the system.

The VA's Office of Inspector General has been investigating the delays for months and shared a draft report of its findings with VA officials.

In a written memorandum about the report, VA Secretary Robert A. McDonald said: "It is important to note that while OIG's case reviews in the report document substantial delays in care, and quality-of-care concerns, OIG was unable to conclusively assert that the absence of timely quality care caused the death of these veterans."

The inspector general's final report has not yet been issued. The inspector general runs an independent office within the VA.

Deputy VA Secretary Sloan Gibson confirmed the findings in an interview with The Associated Press. Gibson, however, stressed that veterans are still waiting too long for care, an issue the agency is working to fix.

"They looked to see if there was any causal relationship associated with the delay in care and the death of these veterans and they were unable to find one. But from my perspective, that don't make it OK," Gibson said. "Veterans were waiting too long for care and there were things being done, there were scheduling improprieties happening at Phoenix and frankly at other locations as well. Those are unacceptable."

In April, Dr. Samuel Foote, who had worked for the Phoenix VA for more than 20 years before retiring in December, brought the allegations to Congress.

Foote accused Arizona VA leaders of collecting bonuses for reducing patient wait times. But, he said, the purported successes resulted from data manipulation rather than improved service for veterans. He said up to 40 patients died while awaiting care.

In May, the inspector general's office found that 1,700 veterans were waiting for primary care appointments at the Phoenix VA but did not show up on the wait list. "Until that happens, the reported wait times for these veterans has not started," said a report issued in May.

Gibson said the VA reached out to all 1,700 veterans in Phoenix and scheduled care for them. However, he acknowledged there are still 1,800 veterans in Phoenix who requested appointments but will have to wait at least 90 days for care.

The VA has said it is firing three executives of the Phoenix VA hospital. The agency has also said it planned to fire two supervisors and discipline four other employees in Colorado and Wyoming accused of falsifying health care data.

Gibson says he expects the list of disciplined employees to grow. Gibson took over as acting VA secretary when Shinseki resigned. He returned to his job as deputy secretary after McDonald was confirmed.

"The fundamental point here is, we are taking bold and decisive action to fix these problems because it's unacceptable," Gibson said. "We owe veterans, we owe the American people, an apology. We've delivered that apology. We'll keep delivering that apology for our failure to meet their expectations for timely and effective health care."

To help reduce backlogs, the VA is sending more veterans to private doctors for care.

Congress approved $10 billion in emergency spending over three years to pay private doctors and other health professionals to care for veterans who can't get timely appointments at VA hospitals, or who live more than 40 miles from one.

The new law includes $5 billion for hiring more VA doctors, nurses and other medical staff and $1.3 billion to open 27 new VA clinics across the country.

The legislation also makes it easier to fire hospital administrators and senior VA executives for negligence or poor performance.

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