VA Knew of Wait Time Related Deaths in 2013

Nothing about the current VA scandal is new. Not the wait times, not the abuse of scheduling procedures, not even the deaths of veterans waiting for appointments. All of this has been previously reported as far back as 2001 in the case of scheduling issues and early 2013 in the case of deaths resulting from long wait times.

The recent focus on long wait times at the VA may make it appear as if this is a newly uncovered problem. In fact, the VA and the GAO have been aware of the problem with abuse of the appointment scheduling system for well over a decade. Not is it the case that the VA was only recently aware that deaths may have resulted from delays.

On March 14, 2013, the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations of the Veterans Affairs Committee held a hearing on patient wait times. During that hearing, chairman Mike Coffman revealed that he had obtained evidence of two wait-time related deaths at the VA. Here is Rep. Coffman’s exchange with Dr. Lynch, the Assistant Deputy Under Secretary for Health Clinical Operations and Management:

Rep. Coffman: Are you aware of any deaths of any veterans due to delayed care?

Dr. Lynch: With respect to the consult look back, no, sir. With respect to what had occurred in Columbia and Augusta, we are aware that there were some clinical disclosures made and that there were veterans who had died with a disease process that could potentially have been related to consult delay.

Rep. Coffman:  Well, yeah, I think you have via the internal documents here, and you are actually fairly specific. It is in May that it, in fact, the delay in treatment did cause the death of a veteran in South Carolina, and another date in May–another internal document, last year, May 15, speaks to the Dorn facility, speaks to another death due to delay in care, so I think that clearly there are, by your own internal documents, there are issues concerning the quality of care related to timeliness and, unfortunately, the loss of life unnecessarily of veterans, and that is particularly alarming.

Within eight months, the VA had upped the number of deaths at the two facilities mentioned by Dr. Lynch during his congressional testimony–The Dorn Medical Center in Columbia, SC and the Charlie Norwood Center in Augusta, GA–to at least nine.

A blockbuster report by CNN‘s Drew Griffin last November uncovered evidence of the nine wait-time related deaths at those two Medical Centers. However unnamed sources with knowledge of the investigation suggested the death toll in Columbia alone may have been as high as twenty.

CNN‘s investigation also uncovered evidence that the VA was well aware of the excessive wait times, with a list of up to 3,800 patients waiting to see a doctor at the Dorn facility in Columbia and an even longer list of 4,500 patients in Augusta. Many patients were waiting as long as 8 months, time during which cancer could progress.

At the time of CNN’s report, the VA refused to speak with CNN about the allegations. Here is the full report from November of last year: