Words by Bridget Foster.
The US Department of Veterans Affairs remains under fire as investigations into alleged secret waiting lists escalate. President Obama has assigned his deputy chief of staff to the VA Department to assist with the review of policies for patient safety rules and the scheduling of patient appointments amid allegations of waiting-list manipulations and preventable patient deaths at the VA Hospital in Phoenix, AZ.
Dr. Sam Foote, a former clinic director at the Phoenix hospital, blew the whistle on his employer. According to Dr. Foote, the hospital maintained an off-the-books list of patients waiting for appointments in order to conceal the long wait times while 40 veterans died waiting for an appointment. The Department of Veterans Affairs had directed hospital administrators nationwide to reduce wait times in order to clear out the backlog of patients that has plagued the system for years. Foote and two other former employees at the Phoenix hospital claimed the hospital was artificially reducing its backlog by creating a paper list of appointment requests instead of entering the requests into the VA’s official computer system (Veteran’s Health Information System and Technology Architecture). Once the patients received an appointment, then they would be entered into the official system, making it appear they were seeing doctors sooner than they actually were.
The director of the Phoenix hospital, along with two other administrators, has been placed on leave while the Inspector General’s office investigates the charges. Acting VA Inspector General Richard Griffin is being assisted by federal prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Arizona and the Department of Justice’s Office of Public Integrity. Griffin has told the Senate panel holding hearings on the issue that so far, his investigators have received several lists of deceased veterans, all containing different names, and have yet to find that any died as a result of delayed care.
Griffin testified before a Senate panel on Thursday, May 15th, the same day that VA Secretary Eric Shinseki appeared amid a clamor for his resignation. Shinseki testified that he was “mad as hell” about the allegations and that he would punish any wrongdoers after the investigation was concluded. After leaving the hearings, Shinseki suggested to reporters that he might revisit the wait time policies in light of the ongoing difficulties brought out in the hearings.
Shinseki has already ordered an audit of every VA facility in the country and claims of waiting-list manipulation have been reported in other states. In Chicago, a social worker at the Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital reported to CBS News that appointment wait times at that facility are being manipulated in order to protect pay bonuses. The Department of Veterans Affairs awards bonus pay to hospital administrators who can document reduced patient wait times, a policy that Shinseki suggested may need reviewing.
Ironically, Sharon Helman, the beleaguered director of the Phoenix hospital, was the director of the Chicago facility for the previous two years before being appointed to the Arizona system. According to the Washington Free Beacon, Helman received a $9,345 bonus last year for her performance as director of the Phoenix VA Hospital.
A special report by the American Legion uses a map of the United States to graphically illustrate the widespread problems plaguing the VA healthcare system.
Also on Thursday, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America in conjunction with the Project on Government Oversight, a government watchdog group, unveiled a new website established to provide VA whistleblowers a safe place to vent concerns about the system.