Congressional committees probing Arizona's VA care

PHOENIX - U.S. Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake say congressional committees are investigating allegations that up to 40 Arizona veterans died while awaiting medical appointments.

The two Republican senators from Arizona held a news conference Friday across the street from the Phoenix VA Medical Center after meeting with top officials.

Last week, the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs said the panel's investigators concluded as many as 40 Arizona veteran deaths could be related to VA delays in providing them medical care.

"These charges are serious," McCain said. "They have to be fully investigated, and our veterans have to be satisfied that the investigation has been thorough."

"We've been assured that the VA here has been cooperating with the investigation," Flake said.

Reports of a secret waiting list also arose during a congressional hearing.

Top VA center officials deny this exists. They said they keep an electronic wait list and do their best to be transparent to the public.

"We have no knowledge of a secret list, and we have never directed our staff to maintain such a list," said Dr. Darren Deering, chief of staff for the Phoenix VA healthcare system.

When it came to addressing the veteran deaths-- officials were not as clear.  

Sens. Flake and McCain said they denied that 40 people died while waiting for care.

"We have not received the 40 cases, and we are asking the Office of the Inspector General to review those cases," said Sharon Helman, the hospital director.

Helman and Deering said the VA center is going back and reviewing all cases independently in addition to the outside investigation.

Right now, Dr. Deering said new patients at the veteran center are typically on a wait list for 55 days. He said existing patients usually face a wait of one week.

"We're not where we want to be right now. The 55 days I referred to is not our goal," Dr. Deering said.  

The Inspector General for the Department of Veterans Affairs also is investigating the complaints about Arizona VA facilities.

Phoenix VA Health Care System officials say they've asked for an external review by the Inspector General and will address any problems quickly.

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