An Absolute Disgrace: Veterans Dying on VA Hospital’s Secret List

Kristina Derro
Veteran Advocate

 This is just disgraceful.  CNN has been reporting for months on the extended delays for health care appointments suffered by veterans across the country and who died while waiting.

 However, new revelations of secret lists and shredded evidence show that long-waits could be just the tip of the iceberg. At least 40 veterans died waiting for appointments at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care system, many of whom were placed on a secret waiting list.

This secret list was devised as part of an elaborate scheme by the VA managers in Phoenix who were trying to hide that 1,400 to 1,600 sick veterans were forced to wait months to see a doctor, according to reports from CNN.

Dr. Sam Foote, who just retired after 24 years with the Phoenix VA, said in an exclusive interview with CNN that, “The scheme was deliberately put in place to avoid the VA’s own internal rules.”

Foote said that there’s an “official” list the VA shared with officials in Washington that shows that they were providing timely appointments, which Foote calls the “sham list.” Then, there’s a real list that’s kept secret, where wait times can last more than one year.

Internal e-mails obtained by CNN show that top management at the VA hospital in Arizona knew about the practice and even defended it.

Meanwhile, veterans languish and many are dying while waiting on this secret list.

The VA requires its hospitals to provide care to patients in a timely manner, typically within 14 to 30 days. So instead of entering veterans’ doctor’s appointments into the computer system, Foote said, staff were instructed to enter appointment information, take a screenshot and print a hard copy, and then not save the appointment.

It’s as if the veteran was never there. According to Foote, the scheme in Phoenix also involved shredding evidence to hide the long list of veterans waiting for appointments and care.

“That hard copy, if you will, that has the patient demographic information is then taken and placed onto a secret electronic waiting list, and then the data that is on that paper is shredded,” Foote said.

The only record of veterans having been to the VA was on that secret waiting list, Foote says. And veterans would not be taken off that secret list until they had an appointment time that was within the 14 day timeframe for timely care, giving the appearance that the Phoenix VA’s wait times were greatly improving.

CNN also obtained e-mails from July 2013 showing that top management, including Phoenix VA Director Sharon Helman, was well-aware about the actual wait times, knew about the secret electronic list, and even defended its use to her staff.

In one internal Phoenix VA e-mail dated July 3, 2013, one staffer raised concerns about the secret electronic list and raised alarms that Phoenix VA officials were praising its use. The email reads:

“I have to say, I think it’s unfair to call any of this a success when Veterans are waiting 6 weeks on an electronic waiting list before they’re called to schedule their first PCP (primary care physician) appointment. Sure, when their appointment is created, it can be 14 days out, but we’re making them wait 6-20 weeks to create that appointment.”

The e-mail pointedly adds: “That is unethical and a disservice to our Veterans.”

And what is the VA’s response to all of this? A whole lot of nothing. CNN was sent the following statement from VA officials in Texas, quoting Sharon Helman:

“It is disheartening to hear allegations about Veterans care being compromised, and we are open to any collaborative discussion that assists in our goal to continually improve patient care.”

With the Phoenix VA’s secret list now catching the attention of representatives in Washington, the “collaborative discussion” referenced in Helman’s statement may transform into a full-blown congressional investigation.

Representative Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, has been investigating delays in veterans’ care across the country. In an April 9 hearing, Rep. Miller learned that even the assistant deputy undersecretary of the Veterans Health Administration wasn’t being told the truth about the secret list and was never aware of its existence.

Congress has now ordered that all records in Phoenix, secret or not, be preserved in anticipation for a congressional investigation.

To read more on this issue, check out CNN’s report:

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