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Outrage growing over Phoenix VA patient treatment

Administrators deny ‘secret list’

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The scandal surrounding a Phoenix veterans hospital widened Tuesday when three Arizona congressmen called for the resignation of the facility's leaders amid allegations that at least 40 veterans died while waiting for medical appointments — and that administrators intentionally buried information about the monthslong wait times.

"Swift action is necessary to salvage what faith is left in the VA system," the lawmakers wrote to Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki on Tuesday, citing reports that officials at the Phoenix Veterans Health Care System had kept a "secret list" of patient requests in order to conceal the fact that some patients were being made to wait more than 200 days for appointments.

"As a direct result of such practices, the deaths of over 40 veterans have come to light," wrote GOP Reps. David Schweikert, Trent Franks and Matt Salmon. "These reports are extremely disturbing, and are a great disservice to our veterans."

The lawmakers also wrote a scathing letter to the Phoenix facility's director, Sharon Helman, asserting that she and others "who were aware of and presided over this unethical and alarming mismanagement must be held accountable."

The Department of Veterans Affairs declined to comment directly on the letters Tuesday. The department said in a statement late last week that it has dispatched a VA inspector general to investigate the Phoenix facility and also sent a team of "clinical experts" to review the site's appointment policies.

Mrs. Helman and another other senior leader at the Phoenix facility have denied the allegations of misconduct, claiming they were unaware any secret list had been kept, and also that they have not seen names of the patients who reportedly died while awaiting care.

Ms. Helman, the hospital's director since February 2012, said her office was cooperating with the inspector general's review.

An early April report by the inspector general detailed medical care failures and administrative misconduct at the Phoenix facility. The scandal blossomed into national news last week following a report by The Arizona Republic that thousands of veterans were experiencing prolonged waits for appointments, and then by a CNN report that VA managers in Phoenix had created a scheme involving the secret patient lists.

CNN cited Sam Foote, a doctor who recently retired after spending 24 years with the VA system in Phoenix.

Since the VA requires its hospitals to provide care to patients in a timely manner — typically within one month — Mr. Foote told CNN that VA officials had instructed staff members to avoid computerizing doctor's appointment requests from veterans.

Instead, Mr. Foote said, when a veteran sought an appointment, staff members would enter the request into a computer in a way that did not save the request in the usual manner. While the data was then gathered on a secret electronic list, the information pertaining to when a given veteran first began waiting for an appointment was destroyed, he said.

The revelations prompted outrage last week from Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, both Republicans, who called for a Senate investigation into the matter.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, Vermont independent and chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, said that the committee will open such a probe once the VA inspector general completes its own investigation.

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