VA Healthcare Update

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A new report was released recently on the problems regarding delayed wait times for care at the Phoenix veterans’ healthcare system. Arizona Republic reporter Dennis Wagner, who has been covering the story, will give an update.

Ted Simons: A much-anticipated V.A. inspector general's report on systemic problems at the Phoenix veterans healthcare system was recently released and here to explain what the report found and give us an update on the V.A. crisis is the man who uncovered the scandal, Arizona Republic reporter Dennis Wagner -- good to have you back. Is the inspector general report the latest in the V.A. or have things happened since then?

Dennis Wagner: There are developments behind-the-scenes. They're planning town halls, they're trying to implement many of the reforms that they've already adopted. They are doing a ton of work to try to get all the vets who are on waiting lists, some kind of medical care, either within the V.A. or they are also referring them out to private care and paying for it. They're hiring like crazy to get doctors, nurses, other workers that can handle the medical load that was there and that wasn't being addressed.

Ted Simons: Let's talk about the inspector general's report. Any surprises in the report?

Dennis Wagner: The only thing that I would say came to me as something of a surprise was that assertion that they had that the inspectors could not conclusively prove that deaths were caused by delays in care. And it wasn't -- I wouldn't think anybody could ever conclusively prove that because the cause of death and I've talked to medical experts, I've looked up the world health organization, there's no place where they show a cause of death as being untimely care or delayed care. The cause of death is a medical condition, cancer, heart attack, a bullet wound, whatever the cause of death happens to be but the inspector general said we haven't been able to prove that the cause of death was delay in care and I still don't understand why that standard was created.

Ted Simons: Again, how would you set that standard? If you have one of these illnesses, one of these conditions and you are not seeing a doctor for a certain period of time, that's got to be a footnote doesn't it?

Dennis Wagner: Well, exactly and the thing that was interesting in the report to me was it made a big point of we haven't proved any of these deaths were caused by the delay of care. It didn't make a point of how many veterans' lives weren't prolonged because they didn't get -- they weren't cared for? How many veterans suffered greater pain and how many of them had conditions that weren't ameliorated because they were treated too late? That's another question. And that's living veterans as opposed to those who died.

Ted Simons: I know the whistleblower who talked to you about all this not very pleased with that aspect of the report at all.

Dennis Wagner: No he and the other whistleblowers were pretty confused by it and I think pretty upset by it. They felt like it was a shot at them and, in fact, some of the media coverage came out and basically said the inspector general report refutes the whistleblower allegations.

Ted Simons: Interesting. Was it planned to be a shot at them? Obviously, there's a little C-Y-A action going on here.

Dennis Wagner: I'm still digging into that.

Ted Simons: Okay. We'll keep reading and keep watching. As far as the report, though, records falsified to hide the delay of appointments, we've talked about that, but basically just blasted that appointment system didn't it?

Dennis Wagner: Blasted the appointment system and didn't just say that it's a screwed up appointment system but that it was a maliciously screwed up appointment system in order for some employees to achieve performance goals that were claiming they were meeting wait time standards. And most devastating in in terms of how scathing it was, it went after the director of the V.A. healthcare system Sharon Helman, she knew this data was inaccurate. She reported this data in her own performance evaluations in order to get bonuses.

Ted Simons: Have we found others around the country not doing exactly the same thing, but similar kinds of things?

Dennis Wagner: Well, there's two things. First of all, yes, they not only have found other things across the country. Other V.A. centers across the country, they're doing the exact same things, but as far as back as 2010, V.A. administrators in Washington, D.C. who knew these practices were going on, issued a memo saying don't do these practices, but nobody has ever held them accountable, held these different disparate V.A. centers accountable. So it happened again and again. And the other thing about it is, although there was this strange apparent shock at the whistleblowers in Phoenix, the actual content of the report, other than that strange thing about death, the content of the report verifies virtually every single point that the other Phoenix whistleblowers named. The inspector general had 225 people complain about Phoenix alone by the time this report was done. So it wasn't just a couple of people who were disgruntled. There's a swelling of people within the V.A. itself who were upset about the way things were being done.

Ted Simons: You have all those folks who are upset. You have whistleblowers galore. You have a report saying don't do this and people in Phoenix and elsewhere doing this. Directly against what the report tells them to do, it's misleading at best. What are the ramifications? Where is the accountability? What has happened to that director of the Phoenix system?

Dennis Wagner: The director of the Phoenix system is still on paid leave. There's a lot of -- there are quite a few people that are really upset about that. Some of them, veterans advocacy groups have actually launched campaigns to try to change that. I think that the V.A. would say there's due process rights. She has a right to due process and she's going through that. She's appealed whatever actions have been taken against her.

Ted Simons: President Obama said that misconduct will result in firings. Has she been fired? The answer is no.

Dennis Wagner: Not yet anyway.

Ted Simons: Has anyone been fired?

Dennis Wagner: I'm trying to think if anyone's been fired in terms of high-level administrators. I think everything so far has been resignations, retirement, and administrative leave.

Ted Simons: Does that surprise you?

Dennis Wagner: Not with the V.A. And I also think that, you know -- I don't want to be cavalier about people's rights because in any kind of a tumultuous situation like this, there can be people accused of wrongdoing who aren't guilty of it, so you do have a certain amount of due process right for people.

Ted Simons: You don't want to see anyone being railroaded, but when the report comes out as scathing as this, are they trying to expedite the process?

Dennis Wagner: They're saying they are. And in addition, to that, the legislation that Congress passed a few weeks ago and the president signed, that legislation contained a provision that gave far greater firing and disciplinary authority to the V.A. secretary with regard to senior leaders. But that authority isn't retroactive so it doesn't affect the case.

Ted Simons: Interesting. The interim director has said that cultural transformation is underway. Is it? Do you see a cultural transformation underway at the Phoenix V.A. system?

Dennis Wagner: I couldn't say whether it's underway or not. I think that it's apparent that some people are making an effort at it. But whenever you have a culture where you have certain people within it that have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, that's a battle that goes on. And I think time is what's going to tell who wins that battle.

Ted Simons: That status quo, though, is such a damaged status quo. They're still fighting for it though?

Dennis Wagner: There's evidence that there's quite a bit of fighting going on.

Ted Simons: And as far as what's next, obviously we talk about rights and due process and such, but criminal prosecution. Is that likely in this case do you think?

Dennis Wagner: I don't think it is. My experience is the federal prosecutors are loath to go after white-collar cases in the first place and particularly hesitant to make criminal charges against federal employees. I don't know why that is exactly, but I've seen a number of cases outside of this V.A. thing where I just could not believe that an individual who was a government official who was by government's own reporting had committed a serious wrongdoing that appeared to be criminal in nature was not charged. So I don't know what to make of that. But I don't think -- I don't see it happening, but I don't know.

Ted Simons: Yeah. Well, again, great information and you've done an incredible job on this story. It's still going. Good to have you.

Dennis Wagner: Appreciate it.

Dennis Wagner:Journalist, Arizona Republic;

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