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Congress to probe Phoenix VA system amid outrage over reported ‘secret’ waiting lists

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), left, shakes hands and speaks with Vietnam veteran Chuck Tharp after a news conference Friday, April 18, 2014, in Phoenix, where Flake and Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.) discussed recent reports that dozens of VA hospital patients in Arizona may have died while awaiting medical care in the Phoenix VA Health Care System.

WASHINGTON — Shocking claims about secret waiting lists and the deaths of 40 veterans allegedly resulting from delays in treatment at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care System have prompted lawmakers to call for hearings on the scandal.

In an interview with CNN, Dr. Sam Foote, who worked with the Phoenix VA for 24 years, claimed that PVAHCS maintained two waiting lists for patients, one of which was secret and was used to cover up the long wait times veterans experienced.

“The only record that you have ever been there requesting care was on that secret list,” he said. “And they wouldn’t take you off that secret list [and put you on the official one] until you had an appointment time that was less than 14 days so it would give the appearance that they were improving greatly the waiting times, when in fact they were not,” Foote told CNN.

“So then when they did that, they would report to Washington, ‘Oh yeah. We’re makin’ our appointments within — within 10 days, within the 14-day frame,’ when in reality it had been six, nine, in some cases 21 months,” he said.

The VA Office of Inspector General has launched an investigation.

The allegations of gross mismanagement and concealment sparked fury among lawmakers and veterans groups.

On Thursday, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., the chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said he would hold a hearing on alleged patient neglect at PVAHCS after the IG completes its investigation.

“Congress must fulfill its responsibilities to get to the truth without delay. Our nation has a duty to provide the best quality of care to those who have served and sacrificed on our behalf, and we must hold accountable anyone who would break that solemn obligation,” Arizona Republican Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, who requested hearings and investigations into the matter, said in response to Sanders’ announcement.

The number of veterans currently on the “secret list” to see a primary care physician is somewhere between 1,400 and 1,600, according to Foote.

Other senior VA staffers confirmed that Foote’s accusations were true, and internal emails obtained by the news organization suggested that top management at the VA hospital was aware of the scheme, according to CNN.

At least 40 veterans died while waiting for appointments with PVAHCS, some of whom were on the secret waiting list, according to CNN.

“[We] welcome the results from the Office of Inspector General’s review. We take these allegations seriously,” PVAHCS said in a press release. “We acknowledge Phoenix VA Healthcare System has had longstanding issues with Veterans accessing care … Phoenix VA Healthcare System cares deeply for every veteran we are privileged to serve.”

Veterans’ groups blasted the VA after learning of the allegations, and demanded accountability.

American Legion National Commander Daniel M. Dellinger said the creation of the secret list in Phoenix would constitute “one of the most abhorrent acts ever committed in VA history.”

“If this is all true, it is a new low in a string of breakdowns at VA medical centers — Columbia, S.C.; Augusta, Ga.; Jackson, Miss.; the list goes on — that have caused the needless deaths of individuals who served this country with honor,” Dellinger said. “We’re going to find out what happened in Phoenix … We are going to find out who was responsible for this secret list and if they are still working for VA. These preventable deaths keep mounting, and yet we see not a single VA manager being held accountable … It is not sufficient for VA to simply say it’s going to try to do better next time, without holding people accountable.”

“When you deal with lives, there should be no leniency granted to anyone with any knowledge of this alleged cover-up, to include everyone in Phoenix who knew but didn’t tell, and those in oversight positions at the VA network and VA headquarters in Washington who knew but didn’t care,” William Thien, the national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said in a press release. “Regarding VA leadership in Phoenix, there is zero trust in their ability to lead, much less to properly care for America’s heroes. If the allegations of veterans dying as a result of this internal process are true, then the individuals responsible should be prosecuted criminally to the fullest extent of the law. The Secretary of Veterans Affairs needs to fire them all, then let the lawyers sort it out.”

harper.jon@stripes.com
Twitter: @JHarperStripes
 

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