VA Physician Describes How He Became a Whistleblower

Monday, 02 Jun 2014 08:42 AM

By Elliot Jager

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The physician who revealed that patients had died while awaiting appointments at the Phoenix VA Health Care System described how he became a whistleblower.

After his original 2013 complaint was apparently disregarded, Dr. Sam Foote wrote a follow-up letter in February 2014 to the VA Office of the Inspector General demanding that his revelations be acted upon, The Arizona Republic reported.

"Patients are still dying. How can that be three months after I first notified you of the problem?" Foote wrote.

The IG's office had in fact begun looking into his allegations in December 2013 but Foote didn't see the situation improving.

The 61-year-old Phoenix VA Health Care System internist moved up his retirement from 2015 to Dec. 31, 2013, so that he could expose what was happening at the facility, according to the Republic. He had reason to believe that complaints from within would be met with retaliation from management.

Foote had watched as too many patients and too few doctors and nurses resulted in a massive backlog at the VA. Managers disguised the logjam by deceptive record keeping that earned them bonus pay for supposedly improved service delivery.

The doctor discovered that managers were not just "massaging the numbers" but that some patients were already dead by the time their appointment times had arrived.

Foote was suspicious of Phoenix VA Health Care System director Sharon Helman, so he gathered data to present to the IG. It showed that up to 40 veterans had died pending their medical appointments — though he never alleged that the veterans died because of the delays. Such a claim would require further investigation, he told the Republic.

Foote took advice from attorney Rick Romley, himself a disabled Vietnam veteran, who recommended that he seek national attention.

In February 2014, Foote wrote a second time to the inspector general, sending copies to Arizona Sen. John McCain, Arizona Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, and U.S. Attorney John Leonardo.

Only McCain's office got back to him, though Foote did not think it was the kind of response that would bring results. Only when he made contact with Eric Hannel, staff director for a subcommittee of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, did he feel his complaint would be adequately addressed. That's when congressional investigators reporting to Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., launched their inquiry.

Foote went to CNN seeking national coverage but the network was enmeshed in the Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 story, according to the Republic.

The VA story finally broke on April 9 when Miller told a House committee hearing that VA officials had been falsifying records and that the deaths of as many as 40 veterans might have been related to delays in getting appointments.

The next day, The Arizona Republic, which had been talking to Foote, ran its story. News of the scandal went viral after Foote's April 23 CNN appearance.

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