Secret lists, deaths: Claims roil Veterans Affairs

Wednesday - 5/14/2014, 9:44pm EDT

BRIAN SKOLOFF
Associated Press

PHOENIX (AP) -- A team of federal investigators swept into Phoenix last month amid allegations of a disturbing cover-up at the veterans hospital.

Their goal: to unravel the truth behind a secret waiting list supposedly maintained to hide lengthy delays for sick veterans, making it appear as if they were seeing doctors sooner when some may have waited months and died in the meantime.

The claims, which so far have not been proved, have thrown the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs into turmoil. Politicians have called for resignations, congressional inquiries are underway, and VA Secretary Eric Shinseki is appearing before a Senate committee in Washington this week.

And it's only the beginning. Shinseki has ordered an audit of every VA facility nationwide and similar claims of waiting-list manipulations have cropped up in other states. As the election-year talk surrounding the debate rages, here is a look at some key facts about the issue:

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HOW DID THE ALLEGATIONS COME TO LIGHT?

A former clinic director for the VA in Phoenix started sending letters to the VA Office of Inspector General in December, complaining about systematic problems with delays in care.

"The time is now. The place is Phoenix, Arizona where a message needs to be sent loud and clear to VA administrators and bureaucrats alike that the murder of our veterans for cash bonuses and career advancement will no longer be tolerated," wrote Dr. Samuel Foote, who retired after spending nearly 25 years with the VA.

Foote later took his claims to the media, then to Republican Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, who announced the allegations at an April hearing.

Foote says up to 40 veterans may have died while awaiting treatment at the Phoenix hospital and that staff, at the instruction of administrators, kept a secret list of patients waiting for appointments to hide delays in care. He believes administrators kept the off-the-books list to impress their bosses and get bonuses.

"If you died on that list, they could just cross your name off and there was no trace that you'd ever been to the Phoenix VA," Foote told The Associated Press. "As if you never existed. You're just gone."

Since Foote's revelations, two more former Phoenix VA employees have made the same claims.

But some question their motives. One employee, who first raised the concerns publicly a few weeks ago, was fired last year and has a pending wrongful termination lawsuit against the hospital. Before he retired, Foote was reprimanded repeatedly for taking off nearly every Friday, according to internal emails he provided the AP.

He said the reprimands were unfair and that he was overworked and had every right to take the days off. Managers said it looked bad for a clinic director to work just four days a week.

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WHAT IS THE VA'S RESPONSE?

Phoenix administrators vehemently deny the allegations. The VA announced recently it found no evidence to substantiate the claims after an internal probe.

The Phoenix hospital's director, Sharon Helman, scoffed at the notion that she would direct staff to create a secret list and watch patients die in order to pad her pockets.

"To think that any of us would do anything like that to harm any veteran for any financial reasons is very, very disturbing," Helman told the AP hours before placed on leave while the Inspector General's Office investigates. She has been provided with police protection after receiving numerous death threats.

Last year, Helman was awarded a $9,345 bonus in addition to her $169,000 annual salary.

Helman and hospital Chief of Staff Dr. Darren Deering, who remains in his job, said Foote and others have not provided names of any of the 40 patients or any documentation of a secret list. Foote, who would not provide that information to AP, said he obtained it through other employees at the VA. He won't say who.

Helman and Deering also speculated that if up to 40 patients did indeed die while awaiting doctor's appointments, some may have died from car accidents or heart attacks or other ailments unrelated to their care at the Phoenix VA facilities.

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THE FAMILIES

Grieving family members of dead veterans have joined politicians from both parties in protests over VA care. Several of them shared the stage with Sen. John McCain last week at a town hall meeting.

Many are appalled to think that their loved one might have been on a secret list while waiting to see a doctor.