Steve Young, interim director of the Phoenix VA Health Care System, listened for hours last week to horror stories recounted by a crowd of hundreds who lost, or nearly lost, loved ones because of months-long wait times to see a VA doctor, as well as "misdiagnoses and poor treatment," Stars and Stripes
The gathering took place at the Phoenix-based American Legion Post 41, triggered by national outrage after whistleblowers reported veterans were forced to wait months to see a primary care doctor, while secret waiting lists made it appear as though the Department of Veterans Affairs was providing timely care.
Dr. Samuel Foote, one of the whistleblowers who spent 24 years with the VA Health Care System, claims there are at least 13,000 patients without primary care doctors and many more who are unable to get prompt specialty or follow-up appointments, according to Stars and Stripes.
"You have to be almost dead for them to do something," complained a teary Carolyn Stoor, who told Young that twice in the past year she nearly lost her husband Ken due to the Phoenix VA's failures, Stars and Stripes reported.
The director of the Phoenix VA Health Care System and two others have been placed on administrative leave pending an investigation. The VA's chief health official, Dr. Robert Petzel, under secretary for health in the Department of Veterans Affairs, resigned last week.
At a Senate committee hearing last week, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki, a retired Army general, testified that he was "mad as hell" about the allegations, as well as an alleged coverup, but said he has no plans to resign, CNN
The Dayton Daily News
has reported that the VA has admitted to 23 veteran deaths due to delayed care, but the newspaper said records it obtained through the Freedom of Information Act put the actual figure at about 1,100 between 2001 and 2013.
The VA makes more than 100 payments per year for claims that patients there died as a result of VA medical care, according to the Daily News.
The national commander of the American Legion, Daniel Dellinger, said there is "a pattern of unresponsiveness that has infected the entire system," according to Stars and Stripes.
Despite the subpar care, many attendees said their veteran relatives sought care at the VA because they considered going there "a badge of honor."
Darrell Richardson said his brother, Dennis, a Navy vet who served in Vietnam, was diagnosed in late July 2012 with liver cancer by his civilian doctor, but when he went to the Phoenix VA hospital to seek treatment, he was informed it would take seven months see an oncologist. They refused to even look at his records, he said. Dennis Richardson died four months later.
Lynn Morris' husband, Dennis Morris, continued to seek treatment at the VA even after turning 65, when he could receive Medicare, she said. In late summer 2013, Dennis Morris was not feeling well and tried for eight weeks to get an appointment at the Phoenix VA. He ended up going to the VA emergency room, where they did a chest X-ray and blood work and said he might have pneumonia.
A second VA clinic closer to their home did a second X-ray and prescribed him antibiotics. When his condition didn't improve, Lynn Morris took her husband to a civilian hospital. They immediately diagnosed him with Stage IV lung cancer, and three weeks later he died.
"I'm convinced they never looked at the X-rays," she said of the VA.
The interim director, Young, listened and scribbled notes for hours. He said he had no answers but was "just here to listen and understand."
"I don't have the perfect solution yet," he said.
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