It’s getting even hotter in Phoenix, where government officials are investigating a scandal at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care System. At least 40 U.S. veterans allegedly died at the Phoenix VA waiting for appointments, and many of them were placed on a secret waiting list to hide the long wait times, according to Dr. Sam Foote, a physician at the Phoenix VA for 24 years who retired in December.
A second whistleblower, Dr. Katherine Mitchell, also a longtime physician at the Phoenix VA, came forward this week with more incendiary charges of poor treatment of veterans in Phoenix and accusations that officials shredded documents related to the investigation.
The controversy remains focused on the secret list, which was part of an elaborate scheme designed by VA managers in Phoenix to hide that 1,400 to 1,600 sick veterans were forced to wait months to see a doctor, according to Foote.
Foote’s charges have prompted investigations the VA Inspector General and Congress. On Thursday, House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-FL) sent a scathing letter to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki demanding that the Phoenix VA hand over documents and answer questions about this secret list.
Miller told Shinseki that if VA does not “immediately and fully” respond to his requests by next Wednesday, May 9th, "I will not hesitate to convene an emergency meeting of the committee to formally subpoena all requested information."
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Miller also slammed VA brass for not answering questions from or providing any information on the allegations. He called it "extraordinarily disconcerting" that more than a week was allowed to pass before any directive was issued by Phoenix VA Director Sharon Helman and her staff to preserve all potential electronic and paper evidence, which Miller requested in writing earlier this month.
Late on Thursday, Shinseki announced he was placing Helman, along with PVAHCS Associate Director Lance Robinson, and a third unnamed employee, on administrative leave until further notice.
“We take these allegations very seriously,” Shinseki said in a statement. “Providing Veterans the quality care and benefits they have earned through their service is our only mission at the Department of Veterans Affairs…. We believe it is important to allow an independent, objective review to proceed. These allegations, if true, are absolutely unacceptable and if the Inspector General’s investigation substantiates these claims, swift and appropriate action will be taken.”
Helman said in a written statement reported by the Arizona Republic that she respected Shinseki's decision and was "fully supportive of any decision that ensures we have a thorough review by the Office of the Inspector General."
On Thursday, Mitchell, the second whistleblower, came forward. Mitchell, who's spent nearly 16 years at the Phoenix VA, told the Arizona Republic that a fellow employee called her last Sunday night to tell her that records were being shredded and to ask her how to handle the situation.
Mitchell said her co-worker managed to preserve evidence of what he believed were falsified wait times for medical care.
Miller and her co-worker reportedly asked officers at VA to secure the documentation. Police declined, but suggested they find a safe place to conceal the documents inside the hospital. Twelve hours later, Mitchell said, her co-worker delivered the evidence and a statement to an IG investigator, while Mitchell went to the Republic, asserting status as a government whistleblower.
Mitchell told the newspaper she had fought for improved veterans care within the system, warning that Emergency Department patients were in serious trouble and, more recently, that suicides had increased amid a shortage of mental-health staff.
"I am violating the VA 'gag' order for ethical reasons," she wrote. She said that as a result, she was transferred, suspended and reprimanded.
Foote told IBTimes that he hasn’t spoken with Mitchell, his fellow Phoenix VA whistleblower, but knows her very well.
“Kate was an ER doctor there for a long time and kept raising absolutely legitimate concerns to administrators that were basically ignored,” Foote said. “She got so frustrated she presented her complaints to Senator John McCain’s office. The VA fired her, and then she went to the office of special counsel and McCain, too, got involved. She served a suspension and got her job back.”
Responding on May 2nd to Mitchell’s charges that that officials in Phoenix VA may have destroyed documents, HVAC Chairman Miller said in a statement: “VA Secretary Eric Shinseki did the right thing by placing three Phoenix VAHCS administrators on leave. But by no means does that commonsense step, which should have already been done weeks ago, take the VA out of the hot seat.”
VA Dr. Robert Petzel, who oversees the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), told the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee on Wednesday that a VA team sent to investigate Foote’s charges has found no evidence to support those claims. Foote in turn questioned the thoroughness of Dr. Petzel’s investigation.
On Wednesday, Helman and her chief of staff, Dr. Darren Deering, denied to CNN any secret effort to conceal or cover up wait times.
"We have never instructed our staff to create a secret list, to maintain a secret list, to shred a secret list -- that has never come from our office as far as instruction to our staff," said Deering.
"It's never come from me," added Helman.
Foote said his goal in going public was for the truth to come out and for veterans to get better and more prompt treatment.
"I don't feel like I am alone in this at all," he said. "Every veteran in the Unites States has a stake in this story.”