A few months ago I wrote about problems with veterans dying in Georgia and South Carolina because of delays in receiving relatively simple procedures such as endoscopies and colonoscopies. Just last month I discussed how Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla) introduced a bill that will make it easier for the VA secretary to fire or demote executives. Unfortunately, I must continue to report on the shortcomings of the VA. Worse yet, the mistakes continue to result in death. This time it was death at Phoenix VA Hospital.
The Phoenix VA hospital is now under some intense scrutiny because as many as 40 veterans died while waiting for a doctor’s appointment. Dr. Sam Foote retired from the hospital in December 2013 after 24 years. He reported that VA managers in Phoenix hid the fact approximately 1,500 sick veterans were forced to wait months to see a doctor. Internal emails have shown that top management knew about an elaborate scheme to hide this fact and they even went so far as to defend their actions.
The scheme was further exposed by Foote, who said that the hospital kept two sets of books. Veterans who came in for treatment were first placed on a secret, handwritten paper list. Not until an appointment became free did the veteran get added to the computerized list. Because the computerized list showed veterans getting appointments shortly after being scheduled, it appeared to the outside world that they were receiving treatment in a timely manner.
Hospital Director Blamed; Congressional Investigations Planned
This all came to light two weeks ago and on April 25th the Office of the Inspector General was invited to come in to do a comprehensive review and a team of clinical experts was brought in to review appointment scheduling procedures and delays. Both houses of Congress are launching an investigation. A Senate hearing is supposed to take place after the inspector general’s office is done with its investigation.
Dr. Foote has gone so far as to name names, saying that the hospital’s director, Sharon Helman, ordered the secret list to evade the VA’s creation-date software, which is designed to track actual waiting times. Foote blames Helman’s desire for a bonus and to further her career. “I think it’s pretty clear who’s to blame for this,” he said.
Helman flat-out lied to two U.S. senators recently, saying she never heard of a secret list. She didn’t mention the memo I have from July 13 where she is brought up on ethics charges for reducing wait times down to 10-14 days when she moved them over to new appointments. She falsified data which clearly resulted in her getting a [$9,345] bonus, and most likely, as a result, many of these veterans died.
Though Helman denied last month that she knew Arizona VA patient wait times were being falsified, internal emails exchanged nine months ago reveal that she did indeed know about it.
Foote went on to point out that the Patient Alleged Care Team initiative the that hospital initiated, designed to improve veterans care and reduce costs, only served to increase the backlog. He said “it was a system that promised Ferrari-like performance but it was imposed on a Phoenix VA that was just trying to provide basic Chevy transportation.”
Cynics may say that Dr. Foote just has a grudge and that is why he is out to smear his former employer. That certainly could be true. However, he very well could be a doctor that spent his life trying to uphold a sworn oath to practice honest medicine and he just could not remain silent anymore. The internal emails seem to support the allegations. It is just a matter of time before we know the results of the official investigations. Either way is it time that Congress gets involved. For the last couple of years, and justifiably so, they have been focusing on the backlog of initial claims filed by veterans. It is high time that they address the backlog that seems to be building across the country for proper medical care.