Dozens of veterans have died after being forced to wait months to see a doctor, according to a months-long investigation conducted by CNN. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), which is plagued with long waiting lists and inefficient systems, is failing to adequately connect former military service members with the health care they need.
Over the past several years, delays in simple and routine screenings have prevented doctors from diagnosing cancer in time to save vets’ lives. CNN identified several specific VA hospitals in South Carolina, Georgia, and Arizona where the situation is particularly dire. Those facilities have placed thousands of veterans on a waiting list for simple gastrointestinal procedures, like a colonoscopy.
The Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care system in Arizona is a particularly egregious offender. There, at least 40 veterans died while waiting in line for an appointment with a doctor. CNN found evidence that many of these individuals were placed on a secret waiting list that’s not entered electronically and not shared with the U.S. government. That way, when the VA hospital provides the government with its official list, it appears as though veterans are promptly receiving care — when in reality, some people are waiting for more than a year.
“The scheme was deliberately put in place to avoid the VA’s own internal rules,” Dr. Sam Foote, who recently retired after working for Phoenix’s VA system for 24 years, told CNN. “They wouldn’t take you off that secret list until you had an appointment time that was less than 14 days so it would give the appearance that they were improving greatly the waiting times, when in fact they were not.”
One of the former service members who died, 71-year-old Navy veteran Thomas Breen, urgently needed to see an urologist over concerns about the blood in his urine, particularly since his family has a history of cancer. His son explained that Breen was so proud of his military service that he would go “nowhere but the VA” for his treatment. But making an appointment took months. When Breen’s wife finally received a call from the VA about the urologist, Breen had already passed away from Stage 4 bladder cancer.
The issue has attracted the attention of Congress. At the beginning of this year, members of Congress began demanding answers about the unnecessary deaths linked to inadequate VA services. The U.S. House Veterans Affairs Committee is monitoring the long wait times and attempting to push for more consequences for the VA officials responsible for the hospital systems. And Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) is calling for hearings on the possible neglect specifically within the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care system.
But the problem isn’t limited to delayed cancer diagnoses. There’s also evidence that U.S. veterans are waiting months to receive treatment for their serious mental illnesses — and that’s contributing to some preventable deaths, too. Some veterans have committed suicide while they’re stuck in line waiting for care. This dynamic threatens to continue, since the suicide rate among young veterans has tripled over the past three years. Nonetheless, cuts included in the budget sequester threaten to compromise veterans’ access to mental health care even further.
Over the past year, the VA has been working to eliminate a backlog of hundreds of thousands of unprocessed medical claims, but there are still about 400,000 overdue compensation claims left. In addition to those 400,000 veterans who are waiting for benefits, another 265,000 former service members have filed appeals with the VA claiming their disability benefits were mistakenly denied or cut.