Phoenix VA hospital destroying evidence, says whistleblower

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Whistleblowers say officials have been destroying evidence at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs hospital where at least 40 patients died from delays, despite requests from Congress to preserve records.

Dr. Katherine Mitchell came forward to the Arizona Republic with records that show the hospital was using a secret list to hide the long wait times veterans faced. According to the Republic, Mitchell sent the documents to the paper after receiving a call from a coworker that evidence was being destroyed.

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“I had no doubts they were capable of destroying evidence, or altering evidence,” she told the Republic. “So there I am, a 47-year-old doctor with two degrees, trying to figure out where to hide stuff.”

“I spent my whole professional life wanting to be a VA nurse, and then a VA physician,” she continued. “[But] the insanity in the system right now needs to stop, and whatever I can do to accomplish that, I will.”

News investigations have revealed at least 40 veterans died while waiting for treatment at the Phoenix VA Health Care System. According to whistleblowers, hospital leadership was aware of the secret lists, which were used to hide the long wait times from officials in Washington.

The House Veterans Affairs Committee requested the VA order the hospital to preserve evidence for investigators, but the department waited eight days to issue the order.

Committee chairman Rep. Jeff Miller (R., Fla.) sent a letter on Thursday to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki asking why the department waited.

“It is extraordinarily disconcerting that more than a week was allowed to pass before any directive was issued to [Phoenix VA Director Sharon Helman] and her staff to preserve all potential electronic and paper evidence,” Miller wrote.

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“I would like to know why it took so long to issue the directive given my public request at a congressional hearing, the formal request letter to you, and most importantly, the explosive nature of the allegations regarding the deaths of veterans while waiting for care.”

Miller threatened to issue a subpoena for the records if the VA does not comply.

“VA takes any allegations about patient care or employee misconduct very seriously,” the VA said in a statement. “The department asked the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), who is charged with investigating allegations of waste, fraud, and abuse, to complete a comprehensive review at the Phoenix VA Health Care System as quickly as possible. Additionally, VA sent a team of clinical experts to Phoenix to review appointment scheduling procedures at that facility as well as the existence of any delays in care.”

The department placed Helman on administrative leave shortly after the letter was issued on Thursday.

Mitchell also described being disciplined for frankly telling Helman about problems in the emergency room.

Her statements echo other whistleblowers, who describe a culture of intimidation and retaliation against anyone who challenged hospital leadership.

Dr. Sam Foote, the first whistleblower to come forward about the secret paper lists, said the hospital is understaffed and underfunded.

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