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After Inspector General Report, Veterans Want More Than Promises


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm David Greene. Good morning. Sometimes a headline doesn't quite do justice to the real story. Yesterday the inspector general's office at the Department of Veterans Affairs said it could not prove anyone had died because of long wait times at the VA medical center in Phoenix. That made headlines. But the fine print told a more complicated story of vets waiting for weeks and months for an appointment and receiving poor care as a result. President Obama, in a speech to the American Legion yesterday, pledged to do better by vets, and he announced a host of new initiatives. As NPR's Quil Lawrence reports, veterans hope they are getting more than just promises.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: The American Legion is the country's largest veterans organization. And it led the charge to fire the previous VA secretary over allegations that VA hospitals were lying about how long vets wait for care. President Obama pledged to keep pushing investigations into corruption at the VA and protect whistleblowers.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We are very clear-eyed about the problems that are still there. And those problems require us to regain the trust of our veterans and live up to our vision of a VA that is more effective and more efficient and that truly puts veterans first. And I will not be satisfied until that happens.


LAWRENCE: Right after the president spoke, the inspector general of the VA released a 140-page report on allegations of wrongdoing at the Phoenix VA. The original charge that sparked national outrage was that 40 vets died because of delays in care. The IG report couldn't find evidence that was true. Still the report was highly critical of the VA.

PAUL RIECKHOFF: If anyone wants to say this is a good news story because they can confirm that 40 people didn't directly die as a result of VA care, you know, that shows you how screwed up things are.

LAWRENCE: Paul Rieckhoff is with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

RIECKHOFF: It's bad news that we couldn't even tell until now. And they had to comb through records that had been cooked and mixed. So they reveal a total system of corruption, neglect and maybe even criminal activity.

LAWRENCE: Case studies in the report detailed how the Phoenix VA called one veteran for an appointment three months after he had died. In another case, a man waited 10 months to get skin lesions tested. It seems to have been pure luck that the lesions were not malignant skin cancer. Other cases show that delayed care can equal bad care, like when dying veterans should have been put in hospice to make their final days or weeks less painful. Phil Carter of the Center For a New American Security says the report confirms what vet groups have been saying for years.

PHIL CARTER: The IG report provides even more evidence that the VA's antiquated systems are breaking down under the strain of veterans seeking care.

LAWRENCE: New initiatives from the White House may help, says Carter, as will the VA reform law signed earlier this month. But many of the same promises have been made for years, like integrating the Pentagon in the VA's health systems. It's easier to promise than to deliver, says Carter.

CARTER: What's going to be necessary is to follow through on those and to make sure that the new contracts, the new facilities and the new pipelines for doctors and nurses and other providers actually come into being and provide care in the field where it's needed.

LAWRENCE: That all means the VA's new secretary, Robert McDonald has his work cut out for him. McDonald is a former CEO of Procter & Gamble, and many hope his private sector experience will get the VA focused on customer satisfaction. Speaking to the American Legion convention, he promised to use the VA's current crisis as an opportunity.


ROBERT MCDONALD: VA might not be concerned about quarterly profit and loss statements or shareholder value, but the VA does have a bottom line. And that bottom line is care for veterans. And I'm here to promise you the VA will go beyond its present difficulties and be stronger for it.

LAWRENCE: Veterans groups have demanded since this scandal broke that VA officials be fired. Although McDonald has been given new powers to do that, he said until criminal investigations are complete, he won't be able to fire them. That could go on a while. The IG report says 93 VA sites are still being investigated. Quil Lawrence, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.