More members of Arizona’s congressional delegation are calling for the resignation of top administrators at the Phoenix Veterans Hospital. The hospital allegedly had a secret list of extremely long wait times for veterans seeking medical care, some so long that patients died waiting for treatment. Dennis Wagner of the Arizona Republic, who has been tracking the story, will discuss the issue.
Ted Simons: Good evening and welcome to "Arizona Horizon," I'm Ted Simons. Calls for the resignation of top administrators of the Phoenix Veterans Hospital are increasing. This after reports of up to 40 deaths due to delays in appointments and treatment. Joining us now is Dennis Wagner of "The Arizona Republic." You have been on this story from the get-go and you're still covering the story. This thing is still going on here. What is exactly happening at that V.A. facility?
Dennis Wagner: I think it's going to depend on who you talk to. If you talk to the V.A. they will say we've been trying to improve this situation. If you talk to some of the vets, the whistle blowers, they will say it's a mess and they will claim that wait times were covered up. It's the time between when somebody wants an appointment and when they actually get an appointment. I think they have improved in the past few years, but even a couple years ago the wait time was sometimes over a year for a first-time appointment for a veteran with a primary care physician. While they are trying to meet the goals they allegedly also falsified data and covered up, had a double booking system so to speak.
Ted Simons: I want to get to that in a second here. The allegations that up to 40 veterans died while awaiting care, does this mean they died because of the delayed care? During the delayed care?
Dennis Wagner: No. That's a really important distinction. Nobody I know of is saying that 40 people died because they couldn't get care. What they're saying is that 40 people had appointments that were pending and they died while they were pending. We're talking about a longer period of time waiting to get care. But whether they would have died anyway is unknown. Whether some of them may have died for other reasons than that medical problem is unknown, because we haven't seen the list of names yet. We don't know how you tie that list to what they died of.
Ted Simons: As far as the delays are concerned, I think you reported the average of about 55 days, obviously that means some can be a lot longer.
Dennis Wagner: The average is 55 days. They talk about 47 percent are within 14 days. But then there's a question as to whether those numbers are accurate. That's one of the big contentions right now among whistle blowers is that those numbers are not accurate.
Ted Simons: How do we know how accurate these numbers are?
Dennis Wagner: I don't know. Back all the way in early March I filed public records requests with the V.A. and have repeatedly asked them to provide me documentation on the inspector general reports on wait-time data, all of these issues. To date we have not received a single document from the Veterans Administration.
Ted Simons: You have, however, received reports and allegations that there seems to be a secret waiting list in order to hide some of the delays that are out there. Again, explain what's going on here.
Dennis Wagner: There's multiple allegations -- not just one claim -- as to how wait times may be manipulated or falsified. One example is that they had been taking appointments on paper documents for years. They switched over to an electronic waiting list. This is just one example. When they made that switch, allegedly they started transcribing from the paper documents onto the electronic lists, and listing the date they put it on the electronic document list as the start time when the appointment was made. So maybe somebody had been waiting four months for an appointment, and all of a sudden you've erased the four months. The V.A. denies that's happening. Who knows what the truth is there. Another example is calling up and canceling appointments, claiming that the doctor is not available or whatever, and then starting people over and thereby erasing that wait time because the appointment got canceled. It was another allegation. There's a multitude of different ways it was claimed to be happening.
Ted Simons: And basically, again, you're reporting that some of these falsified records, the allegations are that some of these falsified records may have led to bonuses for reduced wait times.
Dennis Wagner: The director of the Phoenix V.A., Sharon Hallman, says yes, I received bonuses. Those bonuses were for achieving performance standards, and wait times was among the performance standards. She makes a distinction between, it was all for achieving those wait times. She also flat-out says the single most important goal of her administration -- she's been there two years basically -- they called it the wildly important goal, the WIG program, was to improve wait times for vets, it's of tremendous concern.
Ted Simons: Who is making the allegations? I know a Dr. Sam Foote seems to be an early whistle-blower.
Dennis Wagner: He is a primary care physician who had been with the V.A. for years. He retired December 31st. He filed complaints with the Inspector General's office, delineating how he thought these things were being done and what he thought was wrong with it. The 40 patients and the other accusations originally came from Dr. Foote. Others have come forward, some confidentially and some on the record to say they agree with him.
Ted Simons: How were they made public? There was a hearing?
Dennis Wagner: Dennis Wagner: There was a House committee on veterans affairs hearing. Dr. Foote had submitted his compliant to the house, as well. Many whistle-blowers had particularly gone to John McCain's office. He had submitted his complaint to that committee. The chairman of the committee, Representative Jeff Miller of Florida, during the hearing stunned everybody by remarking he has evidence of deaths in Phoenix among patients waiting, and possibly falsified data. I was in a position at that point, I was in the midst of working on a project on it, but we didn't have any choice. We had to kind of blow our thunder there and write about it.
Ted Simons: Sure. As far as a reaction from the V.A., I know you've spoken to some folks here in Phoenix. How are they responding to all this, what's the official reaction?
Dennis Wagner: The V.A. -- I spent a couple hours with Director Hallman and the chief of staff over there, Dr. Darren Dearing and a number of other members of the leadership group over there at the V.A. Hospital in Phoenix. Their argument was we have been doing our damnedest to improve this system. We have brought in more doctors, more nurses. We are trying to overcome a problem that evolved over years, which was you had an over -- a huge swarm of veterans coming in to the Valley and increasing the workload, at the very same time they had an exodus in staff. The exodus is attributable to pay issues and some other issues. Others say the exodus has to do with morale. There are all kinds of theories on that.
Ted Simons: Now the congressional delegation -- I know they are increasing calls for resignations there at the Phoenix V.A., Senators McCain and Flake, what are you hearing here?
Dennis Wagner: There's an awful lot -- there's a parade of members of Congress calling for investigations. A few of them, a few Representatives, three have called for the removal or the resignation of the key administrative leaders at the V.A. here in Phoenix. And everybody is saying we need to investigate this. There are two -- there's a House investigation and a Senate investigation planned. Both of those are scheduled to occur at a date unknown after the inspector general's report comes out.
Ted Simons: Basically the veterans inspector general's report comes out and that's when we can follow up with more hearings, I would imagine. Until then, there are millions of allegations of records missing, overcrowded emergency rooms, hostile conditions, cronyism, the whole nine yards here. From what you can understand and what you're hearing from whistle blowers and non-whistle blowers, systemic? Nonsystemic?
Dennis Wagner: Among many whistle blowers and many vets, I've had easily over 150 vets contact me, emails and phone calls, just beleaguered. They as well as the whistle blowers see serious systemic problems here. Several members of Congress have remarked about how many complaints their offices are dealing with from veterans who are upset about delayed care and problematic care. I think you could say there's a groundswell of opinion that there is a systemic problem there. The question is, with each of the specific items that you've mentioned, some of them may have been addressed to some extent in the past couple of years, and some of them may not have been. Then there's an overriding concern, not only among whistle blowers but among veterans who are seeking patient care, if they complain publicly they may face retaliation.
Ted Simons: Interesting. We referred to this a little bit earlier, Phoenix V.A. is not the only facility facing these kinds of problems?
Dennis Wagner: No. There are ongoing investigations by congressional committees and inspector generals around the country. If you go to Miami, Atlanta, Memphis, Augusta, Columbia, South Carolina, there's a number in Pittsburgh, quite a few cities that have varying problems. This wait time problem is significant in a number of cities. There are suicide problems at a number of V.A.s. So you've got a system that seems to be just writhing. At the very same time you've got a system that isn't very transparent. There is such a problem of getting documentation to find out what is going on in the V.A. that it makes it all the more problematic.
Ted Simons: Last question, what is next in all of this, and what kind of timetable are we looking at?
Dennis Wagner: Well, I mean, we're doing ongoing stories. There's going to be a series of stories coming out that we're doing, but on the larger picture the single biggest next event I can foresee probably would be the inspector general's report. But we don't have a timetable on that yet. I don't know when that's coming out.
Ted Simons: We still don't even know that, do we?
Dennis Wagner: They have put their "A-team" on it and I know they have got inspectors here right now interviewing loads of people at the V.A.
Ted Simons: All right. You're doing great work on this. Thank you so much for sharing your story with us and we'll keep following.
Dennis Wagner: Thanks, Ted, appreciate it.
Dennis Wagner:Journalist, Arizona Republic;