Amid an increasing fervor to get to the bottom of the latest Veteran’s Administration scandal, whistleblowers continue to come forward, painting an ever more bleak picture of mismanagement and fraudulent practices that have possibly led to the deaths of dozens of veterans.
The allegations come after repeated requests for investigation of financial mismanagement, systemic theft, drug dealing and fraudulent reporting of patient waiting times.
A Phoenix nurse, Pauline DeWenter has made claims that she was required by VA administrators to alter patient records to reflect a false waiting time for requested appointments.
Quick appointment scheduling were one measure used by the Administration to award hospital employees and management with bonuses and pay raises. Supervisors created a system of falsifying documentation to make it look like veterans were not waiting overly long periods for appointments.
Ms. DeWenter said that she was the keeper of a ‘secret list’ of local veterans who waited months for medical care, and she accused others of altering records recently to try to hide the deaths of at least seven veterans awaiting care.
She indicated that the Phoenix area VA Medical Center began falling behind in scheduling appointments during a rise in demand. One of her supervisors directed her to collect all new-patient appointment requests each week and hide them in her desk. She estimated that more than 1000 veterans were placed on that secret list where their requests for appointments were ignored, sometimes for weeks or months, until they could be scheduled within the 14 day goal set by VA administrators.
She said the Phoenix VA Medical Center in early 2013 was having difficulty meeting a surge in demand for medical appointments. DeWenter said a supervisor, who she declined to name, ordered her to gather new-patient appointment requests week after week and place them in her desk drawer. She estimated that more than 1,000 veterans were sidetracked onto that “secret list” — ignored for weeks or months because they couldn’t be scheduled within a 14-day goal set for wait times by VA administrators.
DeWenter had worked for the VA for more than nine years. When she was directed to sidetrack veterans she began to feel uneasy and objected to the practice, but did not file a report with the system’s director, Sharon Helman because Helman had warned employees to follow orders in the moves to shorten wait times.
“She said during a meeting, ‘If you don’t do this my way, I will personally buy you a pass for the 7th Street bus … out of the VA,’ ” DeWenter said.
In spite of her orders, DeWenter realized she was hurting veterans. A fact that became all too clear late last year, DeWenter said, when she struggled to find an appointment for a Navy veteran who reported urinating blood. In December, when she was finally able to find an opening, she called the family and was informed by a female family member the patient already had died. The patient’s medical chart, she learned, called for him to be seen urgently — within a week.
“She told me, ‘You’re too late, sweetheart.’ ” DeWenter said. “The first thing I did was apologize. … I vowed to that family I would do everything in my power to make sure this never happens to another veteran. But it’s taken such a long time.”
Helman has since been placed on Administrative leave pending the outcome of the investigations.
DeWenter finally found an ally in Dr. Sam Foote, a Phoenix VA physician who retired in December after telling the Inspector General’s Office everything he knew. She began adding her testimony to his in interviews with investigators from the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), the Office of Special Counsel and the Government Accountability Office.
Months went by with seemingly no action to put an end to the fraudulent practices or to protect the veterans. “You start getting a feeling like, ‘Maybe I’m wrong and they’re right. I guess this is OK,’ “she said.
Rather than begin to address the allegations DeWenter discovered that adminstrators were actively trying to falsify records to hide their behavior. Seven veterans died while waiting for care. DeWenter had entered ‘deceased’ on their forms as the reason they no longer needed appointments. When inspectors went back and checked the records they found that someone had replaced her notations with “entered in error” and a notation that the appointment was “no longer needed.”
DeWenter said she provided documentary evidence to the OIG, members of Congress and the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.
Asked if administrators in the Phoenix VA Health Care System were aware that appointment records were being falsified, DeWenter nodded, “They knew. They knew.”
Several days after the Phoenix scandal broke, Brian Turner, a VA employee in San Antonio, Texas came forward to complain about malfeasance at clinics there, as well.
Turner alleges that he was present in meetings where schedulers were coached in ways to make it seem as though veterans were not being scheduled out father than the required 30 day waiting periods.
Though hospital administrators refused to answer questions, the Office of the Inspector General issued a letter stating that they had reviewed Turner’s allegations and were proceeding with an investigation.
And now add Albuquerque, New Mexico VA hospitals to the growing list of ‘secret list’ makers. An unnamed doctor has come forward with allegations that requests for medical care by veterans with serious heart conditions, gangrene and even brain tumors were being re-routed in order to hide the often month’s long delays in providing care.
The doctor says that he has been involved in meetings where VA administrators are actively seeking to cover up wrongdoing by deleting records and/or hiding them in databases.
The VA’s Office of Inspector General began investigating the Albuquerque medical center last year, according The Albuquerque Journal, after employees there reported that appointments were being manipulated to conceal patients’ actual wait times. That would mean that the inspector general, and the VA itself, knew about allegations of corruption there long before the Phoenix story broke in April.
Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, has been beating the drum about wait times and advocating reform since before the latest crisis put the VA back in the spotlight. “VA’s delays in care problem is real and has already been linked to the recent deaths of at least 23 veterans,” Miller told The Daily Beast.
Yet it wasn’t until the latest VA scandal broke nationally—months after the inspector general first investigated claims that are strikingly similar to what was later reported in Phoenix—that Albuquerque’s came back into focus. The status of the initial investigation still hasn’t been made public.
Last week, New Mexico Senator Tom Udall requested a new investigation into his state’s VA hospitals. Udall called for the audit after his office received dozens of complaints from veterans about long wait times at the VA, and reports that Albuquerque’s schedulers were forging appointment records.
New Mexico is now the seventh state where allegations have emerged about VA medical facilities cooking the books. As new incidents continue to display the same features uncovered in past cases, the details are revealing a common language of bureaucratic corruption communicated across state lines between different VA facilities.
Yet, even as evidence builds of a systemic problem within the VA, the department itself has been slow to acknowledge it and even slower to act. In his testimony before the Senate last week, VA Secretary Shinseki referred to the six cases that had been revealed up to that point as “isolated incidents.”
Ultimately, it is going to come down to the men and women who work at each of the various VA hospitals and clinics across the nation to come forward to report on the wrongdoing that is leading to delayed care and sometimes the deaths of veterans. Whistleblowers like Brian Turner and Pauline DeWenter will end up being the heroes that save the lives of the other heroes in their care.
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