Report: The Department of Veterans Affairs misled Congress and media

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WASHINGTON (CNN) — The Department of Veterans Affairs misled Congress and members of the media about how many veterans died or suffered serious harm as a result of extreme treatment delays, according to a new report by the department’s top watchdog.

The VA shared a fact sheet in April with Congress and the press that said 23 veterans died and a total of 76 suffered serious harm throughout the nation while waiting months or years for health care since 1999. But the report released Monday by the VA’s Office of Inspector General highlights multiple errors with these findings and a lack of evidence for statements the VA released about them.

Amongst the misleading facts highlighted in the report, the VA overstated the timeframe of its review by eight years, since the VA said it examined unresolved requests for health care since 1999, but in reality only examined requests dating back to 2007.

Moreover, the inspector general says there may have been “overstatements or understatements” about the number of deaths or illnesses resulting from delays at specific VA hospitals and that the fact sheet contained a number of other errors.

These errors also included an incident reported to have occurred at one VA facility when it actually happened at another, and the number of “institutional disclosures” — where the VA admitted delays caused severe harm — as being overstated at one facility.

The report raises questions about how many veterans may have had their appointments erased by VA staff before they received treatment.

The VA reported that between September 2012 and April 2014, the number of appointments delayed more than 90 days dropped from 2 million to less than 300,000, but the inspector general found that the VA did not document how staff members were closing these appointments and did not ensure veterans received the care they were waiting for.

As a result, the inspector general could not determine what happened to 1.7 million appointments.

VA leaders, including a top VA health official, Dr. Thomas Lynch, shared many of these statistics on patient deaths and harm during a congressional staff briefing on April 7 and repeated them at a House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs hearing on April 9.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida, the committee chairman, described the errors as either intentionally deceitful or grossly incompetent.

“VA’s statistics regarding the number of veterans harmed by department delays in care are almost certainly wildly inaccurate and we may never know the actual number of veterans affected by gaps in the VA system that existed for years,” Miller said in a statement Monday.

“Accountability for the VA leaders responsible for misleading Congress and the public on this important matter is sorely needed,” he added.

Miller also said the VA eventually contradicted itself in correspondence with the House committee by saying a review of delayed requests for health care dating back to 1999 would not be possible.

The VA previously issued an apology for the misleading and incorrect statements saying, “VA inadvertently caused confusion in its communication on this complex set of reviews that were ongoing at the time. For that, we apologize. There was no intent to mislead anyone with respect to the scope or findings of these reviews.”

A separate VA audit released in June found that about 57,000 newly enrolled veterans were waiting at least 90 days for medical care and that almost 64,000 who enrolled in the past decade requested, but never received, appointments.

VA Secretary Robert McDonald has since taken steps to reform the embattled agency by creating new partnerships with private organizations, giving veterans greater access to private health care and establishing a VA-wide customer service office, among other programs.