In a new revelation in the growing Veterans Affairs' scandal, the organization's acting head says that an additional 18 veterans whose names were kept off an official electronic VA appointment list have died.
Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson said he would ask the inspector general to see if there is any indication those deaths were related to long wait times. If so, they would reach out to those veterans' families.
"I will come personally and apologize to the survivors," Gibson said Thursday.
Gibson's remarks during a visit to Phoenix were the latest related to the scandal over long patient waits for care and falsified records covering up the delays at VA hospitals and clinics nationwide.
Gibson's announcement came as senior senators reached agreement on the framework for a bipartisan bill making it easier for veterans to get health care outside VA hospitals and clinics.
The 18 veterans who died were among 1,700 veterans identified in a report last week by the VA's inspector general as being "at risk of being lost or forgotten." The investigation also found broad and deep-seated problems with delays in patient care and manipulation of waiting lists throughout the sprawling VA health care system, which provides medical care to about 9 million veterans and family members.
Gibson said he does not know whether the 18 new deaths were related to wait times but said they were in addition to the 17 reported last month.
Richard Griffin, the VA's acting inspector general, told a Senate committee three weeks ago that his investigators had found 17 deaths among veterans awaiting appointments in Phoenix. Griffin said in his report last week the dead veterans' medical records and death certificates as well as autopsy reports would have to be examined before he could say whether any of them were caused by delays in getting appointments.
The bill announced Thursday by Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., would allow veterans who wait 30 days or more for VA appointments or who live at least 40 miles from a VA hospital or clinic to use private doctors enrolled as providers for Medicare, military TRICARE or other government health care programs.