CHICAGO – Illinois members of Congress are increasing their scrutiny of veterans hospitals in the state after an internal review showing several dozen patients waited more than three months for appointments at two facilities.
Letters from Veterans Affairs officials to some U.S. senators – including Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois and Kansas' two senators – last week disclosed that problems with delayed care and unauthorized wait lists existed at several facilities throughout the Midwest. Among them were two hospitals serving veterans from southwestern Illinois, in Marion and St. Louis.
Just days ago, officials at both facilities assured U.S. Rep. John Shimkus of Collinsville there were no such problems at either facility, the Republican told The Associated Press Wednesday, adding that he was surprised to learn otherwise this week.
"That's news to me which was not divulged in previous conversations with these administrators," he said. "And so that may cause me to have to circle back to make sure I understood what they were telling me. That raises more questions."
Representatives for the two hospitals could not be reached for comment. A regional spokesman, Shaun Shenk, responded with a VA statement acknowledging problems in reporting accurate wait times and referring to system-wide efforts to accelerate care.
Other lawmakers, meanwhile, were planning visits to VA facilities in Illinois this week, including the Marion VA Medical Center. The VA's Inspector General's Office is conducting a nationwide review of facilities after allegations first emerged at a hospital in Phoenix that secret waiting lists were used to cover up long wait times.
In Illinois, most of the attention has been focused on a suburban Chicago hospital where several staff members and a union representative have come forward with similar allegations. Kirk, a Republican from Highland Park, has asked the VA's acting inspector general to investigate the allegations, including whether $16.6 million in bonuses to employees may have led to secret wait lists and scheduling manipulation.
"The VA will continue to be held accountable for this corruption until our nation's veterans are given quality medical care in a timely manner. Anything less than that dishonors their immeasurable sacrifice," Kirk said Wednesday.
The director of the Edward Hines, Jr. VA Hospital has denied there were secret waiting lists at the facility.
The letters that became public this week show that problems exist elsewhere in the state. Upon the request Kansas' two senators, the letters summarized results from a review by the VA Heartland Network of 61 hospitals or clinics that serve Kansas, Missouri and parts of Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky.
Veterans who waited longer than 90 days for care included 26 at VA St. Louis Health Care System and eight at the Marion hospital, which serves the southern parts of Illinois and Indiana.
Shimkus said he spoke with the directors of both facilities in addition to one in Danville in recent days to emphasize the need for fast access to care. He said administrators made some mention of problems with following proper procedures and using the official electronic appointment system properly, but indicated they felt they were operating within guidelines.
"My impression was ... that they all felt that there were no egregious examples and they were within standards," he said.
The VA standard aims to get patients seen by a doctor within two weeks of seeking an appointment.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Bill Enyart planned to visit the Marion hospital Thursday and has requested to interview patients and staff without being accompanied by administrators so they'll feel free to speak freely.
"I have veterans who swear by the VA ... and I have veterans who swear at the VA," Shimkus said. "Those who are swearing at the VA, maybe we should empower them more."
U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, said he's focusing on how to fix the system, including eliminating the "bureaucratic nightmare" that led to the current crisis.
"What we've seen at the VA is unacceptable and it's our duty to make things right," the Republican from Channahon said.