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Hospital delays are killing America's war veterans

By Scott Bronstein, Nelli Black and Drew Griffin CNN Investigations | 11/20/2013, 12:19 p.m.
Military veterans are dying needlessly because of long waits and delayed care at U.S. veterans hospitals, a CNN investigation has found. What's worse, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is aware of the problems and has done almost nothing to effectively prevent veterans dying from delays in care, according to documents obtained by CNN and interviews with numerous experts. Photo courtesy of CNN.

CNN also has learned that, though little publicized, the problem is not new.

"Long wait times and a weak scheduling policy and process have been persistent problems for the VA, and both the GAO and the VA's (inspector general) have been reporting on these issues for more than a decade," said Debra Draper of the Government Accountability Office.

Draper's office has been reporting to Congress on the delays in care at the VA for years. It is so bad, she said, that she and her staff have found evidence that VA hospitals have tried to cover up wait times, fudge numbers and backdate delayed appointments in an effort to make things appear better than they are.

She says that just getting someone to pick up the phone to make an appointment at a VA hospital can be difficult. And getting a detailed picture of the problem is nearly impossible, she said.

"It's unclear how long it is being delayed, because no one can really give you accurate information," Draper said.

Despite numerous reports and subsequent recommendations by the GAO, the problems with delays persist at VA hospitals, Draper and other experts say.

"Nothing has been implemented that we know of at this point," Draper said. "We've reported similar things, as well as the inspector general has reported similar findings ... for over a decade."

In fact, time and time again, even at hospitals where veterans died waiting for care, administrators got bonuses, not demotions, according to congressional investigators.

The House Committee on Veterans' Affairs has created a website devoted to what investigators say shows ongoing problems at the VA, but the rewards system that Miller says is in place seems to encourage those problems.

CNN's repeated requests for interviews with the VA have been denied. Even Congress has had its requests for information ignored, Miller said.

"But unfortunately, if they treat members of Congress ... this way, imagine how they treat the average veteran out there," said Miller. "I can imagine the grief they may be going through."

The VA said in a statement to CNN, "The Department of Veterans Affairs is committed to providing the best quality, safe and effective health care our Veterans have earned and deserve. We take seriously any issue that occurs at one of the more than 1,700 health care facilities across the country. The consult delay at Dorn VAMC has been resolved."

The statement added that cases are now tracked daily, and additional staff members were hired.

But sources at Dorn -- both patients and medical staff -- tell CNN that's just not true. The problems continue, and veterans are still facing delays that could be killing them.

CNN's Curt Devine contributed to this report.

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