More than 8,500 new patients are still waiting for initial medical appointments at six VA hospitals and clinics throughout Florida 90 days or more after requesting them, with the longest wait list at the Gainesville facility, according to an audit released Monday by the Veterans Affairs Department.
Additionally, more than 5,000 who enrolled at Florida VA facilities over the past 10 years have never had appointments.
The audit of 731 VA hospitals and outpatient clinics around the U.S. found that a complicated appointment process created confusion among scheduling clerks and supervisors. A 14-day goal for seeing first-time patients was unattainable given the growing demand among veterans for health care and poor planning, the audit said. The VA has abandoned that goal. The audit noted 13 percent of VA schedulers reported supervisors telling them to falsify appointment dates to make waiting times appear shorter.
The massive data release comes amid growing nationwide concerns with veterans' care. Last month, long wait times and secret waiting lists ultimately prompted the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. The issue has also become a political thorn for the Obama administration during mid-term elections, which Republicans have seized on.
Florida officials filed a lawsuit last week after making unannounced visits to VA hospitals in in West Palm Beach, Bay Pines, Miami, Lake City, Gainesville and Tampa in April and May to investigate allegations of substandard care. VA officials blocked them each time. In letters to Republican Gov. Rick Scott and Elizabeth Dudek, secretary of the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration, VA officials said federal facilities aren't subject to state laws.
The Gainesville VA hospital had 4,000 new patients who were unable to get an appointment 90 days after requesting one. More than 3,000 who enrolled at that facility in the past 10 years never received appointments. The Bay Pines facility in St. Petersburg was next in the state with 712 new patients unable to get appointments 90 days or more after requesting one. Nearly 1,200 who have enrolled in the facility in the past 10 years still not had an appointment, the audit found.
The Sunshine State is home to 1.6 million veterans and boasts the largest population of World War II veterans in the nation, according to the Florida Department of Veterans' Affairs.
State officials said they filed the lawsuit after receiving numerous complaints with references to long wait times, lack of attention, unsanitary conditions and improper medical care.
In a letter to the governor, employees at the West Palm facility said four patients fell between 2013 and 2014, causing serious injury and, in one case, death. Another patient missed a chemotherapy treatment because a chemo nurse wasn't scheduled. Another veteran in his 50s was having a pacemaker replaced when employees allege he went into cardiac arrest because the anesthesiologist used the wrong size needle. That patient developed fasciitis and underwent an emergency surgery to save his arm, but he subsequently died, according to the letter signed by "concerned employees."
A copy of the letter was included in the lawsuit filed by state officials.
Meanwhile, federal officials have taken several steps to address the scandal over long patient waits for care and phony records hiding delays at VA hospitals and clinics nationwide, including hiring freezes at administrative offices. The agency also plans to use temporary staffing measures, including mobile medical units, to accelerate care for veterans on wait lists.
Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson said the audit showed "systemic problems" that demand immediate action. VA officials have contacted 50,000 veterans across the country to get them off waiting lists and into clinics, Gibson said, and are in the process of contacting an additional 40,000 veterans.