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Report: Top officials briefed on Phoenix VA woes before scandal erupted

By STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 29, 2014

Long before news broke that the Veterans Affairs hospital in Phoenix had manipulated waiting lists to hide the fact that veterans were facing long delays to see doctors, senior department officials in Washington had been made aware of serious problems at the hospital, according to a report in The New York Times.

The Times wrote that filings before a federal administrative board in the case of the Phoenix hospital director Sharon Helman, who had been contesting her Nov. 24 firing, show how much officials knew about patient backlogs, shortages of medical personnel and clinic space, and long waiting lists.

The filings included the sworn statement of Susan Bowers, the executive in charge of dozens of hospitals and clinics from West Texas to Arizona, that she had warned Washington that if any VA medical center was going to “implode,” it would be Phoenix.

Bowers, who retired in May, said that before Helman became the head of the Phoenix facility in 2012, an audit showed the hospital was out of compliance with a directive requiring patients be on an official electronic waiting list, the Times wrote.

Bowers said that when she submitted a report stating that the Phoenix hospital was out of compliance, she was pressured by other officials to say that it was compliant.

She also said in court papers that beginning in 2009, she briefed retired Army Gen. Eric Shinseki, then the VA secretary, and other top officials several times a year about the patient backlog and other problems in Phoenix.

The scandal shook the confidence of millions of veterans who use the department’s hospitals and clinics, and led to Shinseki’s ouster in May. After a whistle-blower charged that there were secret waiting lists for care at Phoenix, an investigation by the department’s inspector general found that 1,700 patients there had not been placed on proper waiting lists and may never have received medical care, the Times noted. A top official in the inspector general’s office also testified that delays for care had contributed to some patient deaths.

This week, a federal judge found it was “more likely than not that at least some senior agency leaders were aware, or should have been, of nationwide problems getting veterans scheduled for timely appointments” and that the Phoenix hospital, “as a part of the nationwide system also had those problems.”

The Times reported that the judge ruled that the department failed to provide sufficient evidence that Helman should have been fired over the conditions at Phoenix. Still, he upheld her dismissal on charges of taking favors from a health care industry consultant.

In filings in Helman’s case, the department also acknowledged that before April, three high-ranking officials, including a deputy under secretary for health and the associate director for scheduling and access, were aware of issues at Phoenix related to wait times, the electronic waiting list or patient appointment backlogs.

A sworn statement by the former under secretary for health, Dr. Robert Petzel, also stated that before Helman arrived, the “VA was aware of access issues” in Phoenix. Shinseki, however, according to the filings, said that he was “unable to recall the contents of the briefings” from Bowers and “did not recall any of the allegations regarding Phoenix being raised during any budget presentation.”

news@stripes.com

The Phoenix VA Health Care System's main campus.
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