As Veteran Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki prepares to testify before a Senate panel Thursday about veterans’ healthcare, revelations about months-long wait times and secret lists designed to deceive Washington about the VA’s efficiency continue to surface, according to multiple reports.
The Wall Street Journal
interviewed the family of a Phoenix man who waited eight months for the Phoenix VA Health Care System to contact him to schedule an appointment. By the time 64-year-old retired Marine James Pert got the call, he was dying of melanoma.
In Fort Collins, Colo., retired Air Force serviceman Henry Leweling, who has an aneurysm, high cholesterol, and a family history of heart disease, received immediate care at a VA urgent care in Cheyenne, Wyo., which then referred him for follow up treatment at the Fort Collins VA clinic. Employees there told him the wait time would be three to four months, the standard line he received any time he requested an appointment there, according to USA Today.
"He said he was 'obnoxious' and called a 'troublemaker' but was seen the next day in Fort Collins," according to USA Today. "Between that visit and one to his specialist in Wisconsin, he learned his aneurysm had expanded, and the pain stemmed from another blocked vein."
The Fort Collins VA faces similar allegations as in Phoenix: falsifying appointment records to make it appear as though patients were receiving timely care, within the department’s goal of 14 to 30 days. USA Today reported that the federal Office of the Medical Inspector recently released a report outlining the "scheduling problems" that led to the alleged record alterations.
In Phoenix, it has been alleged by a retired VA doctor that at least 40 patients died while waiting for appointments.
According to Dr. Sam Foote, who worked at the Phoenix VA for 24 years, as well as several other high-level VA staff, officials directed employees not to not make doctor's appointments within the computer system, but instead "enter information into the computer and do a screen capture hard copy printout," Foote told CNN
. "They then do not save what was put into the computer so there's no record that you were ever here."
The patient was then placed on a secret electronic waiting list, and the information showing when the veteran initially requested an appointment was destroyed.
"So the only record that you have ever been there requesting care was on that secret list," Foote said. "And they wouldn't take you off that secret list 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."
If veterans on the secret waiting list die, they are deleted from it.
Foote estimated there are between 1,400 and 1,600 veterans on the secret list, waiting to see a doctor, according to CNN.
Phoenix VA Health Care System Director Sharon Helman, Associate Director Lance Robinson, and a third official in Phoenix have been placed on leave during the investigation.
The American Legion has demanded that Shinseki and two of his top executives resign, according to The Washington Post
Debra Draper, head of healthcare for the Government Accountability Office, told the Journal that during GAO inspections of four different medical centers in 2012, all had problems with scheduling procedures. The VA’s two major problems: "antiquated software" – dating to 1985 – and substandard service.
"Just trying to get people to answer the phone or return messages. That's a big problem," Draper told the Journal. "On top of all that, you have inadequate oversight."
Shinseki has been subpoenaed for documents and emails related to the controversy. He is scheduled to testify before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, where it’s expected he will be grilled over the lengthy appointment times and the "preservation of all electronic and paper evidence related to the purported treatment delays," the Post reported.
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