Eighteen veterans died while waiting for medical appointments, the acting Veterans Affairs secretary said during his visit Thursday to a facility that has become the epicenter of a growing and sweeping scandal over inadequate veteran patient care.
Sloan Gibson said the VA had contacted 1,700 veterans kept off an official waiting list at the Phoenix VA facility to schedule their appointments and confirmed that at least 14 of those 18 later contacted the VA for end-of-life care, Gibson said.
He said he didn't know whether this group was part of the 40 patients that VA employees and veterans have said died while waiting for medical care. Gibson said he has asked inspector general officials to get back to him on that matter and to tell him how many of those deaths were associated with delay in patient care.
If that is the case, Gibson said, he would come back to Arizona and "personally apologize to those survivors."
"In far too many instances we have let our veterans down," Gibson said in a news conference. "They have had to wait too long for the care they deserve and in too many instances we have behaved in ways that are not consistent with our values."
Gibson also said three senior VA leaders in this desert city may soon be fired over allegations of misconduct in patient care and that hospital officials are scrambling to fill more than 300 vacancies as quickly as possible.
He promise to release documents that would provide details about wait times at every facility in the VA.
Gibson's visit came less than a week after VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki stepped down and the VA Inspector General's Office released a critical report about the Phoenix VA.
The interim report showed a systemic problem in scheduling veterans for healthcare in a timely manner, which included instances in which Phoenix VA staff falsified records to cover up long waits. Investigators found an average wait of 115 days for a sample of veterans at the facility.
Gibson met with Phoenix VA medical center staff, veterans service organization and Arizona congressional delegates. He said he is in the process of working on immediate solutions to address the problems at the Phoenix facility, which he said is woefully understaffed.
Human resource specialists have already been brought in to expedite the hiring of new staff, including doctors and nurses, and that two mobile healthcare trucks are been brought on site to address immediate needs, Gibson said. In addition, officials are modifying their local contract so they can tap into "purchased care," or outside services, for primary care.
"Where there are a need for resources we will not hold back," Gibson said. "I will not hesitate to ask for resources when they are needed."
He vowed to earn back the trust of every veteran, saying, "Veterans must feel safe when they come to the VA for care."