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By Ben Kesling 

The acting inspector general for the Department of Veterans Affairs said no evidence had been found so far of patient deaths attributed to long wait times at the Phoenix VA Health Care System.

"We didn't conclude, so far, that the delay caused the death," said Richard Griffin at a Senate hearing Thursday on the state of the VA's health care. "It's one thing to be on a waiting list, it's another for that to be the cause of death."

Whistleblowers and the House Committee on Veterans Affairs have said as many as 40 veterans might have died while waiting for appointments at the Phoenix system. Mr. Griffin said his office was reviewing multiple lists of veterans whose deaths allegedly occurred while waiting for appointments.

His office has already reviewed 17 of these cases, Mr. Griffin said, and hasn't found a single instance of a patient death because of excessive wait time.

Until now, the inspector general hasn't commented on the accuracy of these reports.

"Part of this review could lead to criminal charges being brought," Mr. Griffin said. The Phoenix report is of a large scope, he said and so far, 185 employees from his office have played a part in the review.

Mr. Griffin said there was no need to bring in an outside agency, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, to assist in the probe at this time. He said he has ample resources and specialized knowledge of the VA system, which makes his office the proper investigative body at this time.



Mr. Griffin was asked about current VA wait-list policies and procedures, and if they could have contributed to employees seeking to tamper with appointment scheduling.

"Policies emanate from Washington. The policies look good on paper," he said "But they aren't always followed in the field."

Earlier, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki defended his accomplishments as head of the Department of Veterans Affairs but said the department still has work to do, in testimony Thursday morning at a hearing of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs.

"VA provides safe, effective health care, equal to or exceeding the industry standard in many areas," Mr. Shinseki said during his testimony. "That said, there are always areas that need improvement. We can, and we must do better."

During testimony, Mr. Shinseki highlighted his goal of effectively ending veteran homelessness by 2015, noting that those numbers fell 24% between 2010 and 2013. He also noted the expansion of support, training and funding for caregivers of veterans and the VA's push to help control dependence on opioids, or strong painkillers.

Mr. Shinseki said the VA system conducts 236,000 appointments daily, or 85 million a year at nearly 2,000 locations, making the VA system the "largest integrated health-care delivery system in the U.S."

The system has grown under Mr. Shinseki's tenure. In 2015, the VA projects it will treat 6.7 million patients, nearly 20% more than the 5.7 million patients in 2009, when he took office. Even as the system has grown, Mr. Shinseki has been pushing for patient wait times to fall, setting targets of 14 days for some appointments.

He said no measure of wait times is perfect, but the VA "is constantly evaluating access and scheduling policies and technologies, and aggressively monitors reliability through oversight and audits."

Right now, the VA, the VA's inspector general and the House Committee on Veterans Affairs all are reviewing or investigating wait times and appointment-scheduling procedures. The House committee last week voted to subpoena a number of emails and correspondence, including those of Mr. Shinseki, that could be related to the alleged secret wait list in Phoenix. The VA has said it would review and respond to the subpoena.

None of the lower-level employees were made available for comment, and the Phoenix director, Sharon Helman, has denied any knowledge of a secret waiting list while saying she understands Mr. Shinseki's decision to conduct a nationwide review of all VA locations.

Write to Ben Kesling at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.