VA Health Care Crisis Update

More from this show

Get the latest on the Veterans Affairs health care crisis. Arizona Republic reporter Dennis Wagner, who has written extensively about the crisis, will tell us more.

Ted Simons: Good evening and welcome to this special Veteran's day edition of Arizona Horizon. I'm Ted Simons. We begin with an update on the Phoenix V.A. health care system, including word that another interim executive has been put in charge of the medical center. The Arizona Republic's Dennis Wagner has been on this V.A. story from the get-go, you broke this thing and are still working it. I imagine you will be working it for some time. Good to have you here.

Dennis Wagner: It's gotten tiring.

Ted Simons: I imagine. Let's start with this -- another new interim director? Who are we talking about here?

Dennis Wagner: A gentleman by the name of Glenn Griffin. He's a former director at the V.A. health care centers and at, at some of the, some of the regional office, who also was, was an assistant under -- I can never get those together. He went into retirement a few years ago, and they pulled him out of retirement. It has been like I said a revolving door. They put -- they have been putting people in there for 120-day stints, so he's like the third or fourth one. He's going to be given a one-year tour in Phoenix, and the reason for that, my impression is, is because members of Congress have been dogging the V.A. saying, we have no permanent leadership here. Give us some stability. We're trying to overcome the crisis.

Ted Simons: Why is the V.A. putting -- the previous executives -- why were they put on those leashes? What was going on there?

Dennis Wagner: The reason for that is, because under the V.A. policy or protocol, when an administrator is placed on leave, or a suspension, that person still, still is technically -- holds the job. So, they don't put somebody in there permanently to replace them because, because if, for example, the reasons -- Sharon Hellman was the director, and she is now been on paid leave for like six months or five months. And so, she still would be entitled to that job if she is not fired, so they cannot fill the job permanently.

Ted Simons: Why hasn't she been --Has anyone been fired over this?

Dennis Wagner: Not at Phoenix V.A., no. There is three administrators who were placed on leave. And they are all collecting their pay economics and have been since around may 1st and that is a, a bone of contention for, for people like Senator John McCain and, and representative Kristin, and also Jeff Miller, they have all been just hounding the V.A. If you had reason to put these guys on leave and said that they had done wrong, and they found that there was wrongdoing, why haven't they been fired? They are not getting answers. There have been kind of anticipates, first they were saying they have due process rights in the Federal personnel system, and that is kind of abated that argument, and now there is one that, that well, there is criminal investigations ongoing, and we cannot interfere with those, but the Justice Department came out and just recently and said, well, it's no problem for us, whatever you do with your administrators is your business. So, now, I don't know what the answer is.

Ted Simons: Oh, my goodness. And as far as the V.A., the national V.A. is concerned, the inspector general support the OAG, and it sounds like there is no information on that, that suggests that maybe some folks were pushing for changes to, to -- that critics are calling a white wash? What's going on with that?

Dennis Wagner: It more than suggests it. There have been -- the V.A. released emails that showed that, that the, the, the headquarters of the V.A. was asking for, for additions to, to the inspector general. They got a draft company before it was made public, and those additions that they wanted, the main edition that they wanted was language that would say, well, wait, we don't have any proof that anybody in Arizona died because of the delayed care to Veterans. And that language was sought by the secretary, the acting secretary of the V.A. I just had a mental lapse.

Ted Simons: That's all right.

Dennis Wagner: And, and a White House appointee who was supposed to kind of be heard on the V.A., and it, it -- we don't know exactly what language they pushed for. But, the language of that nature ended up in the report and became very controversial. It caused Sam foot, a whistle-blower, who said he never said there were patients in Arizona who died because of it, because he could not prove that. He said that they died while awaiting care, and the Government needs to investigate whether that delayed care contributed to their death.

Ted Simons: And I would imagine that he would be among those calling this a white wash?

Dennis Wagner: He was among those calling it a white wash, and he was among those saying that, that, that the revelation of these emails that showed pressure from the V.A., he was saying that, that more proves what I was saying already.

Ted Simons: Do you keep in contact with the doctor?

Dennis Wagner: Yes, I do, all the time.

Ted Simons: What's he saying?

Dennis Wagner: Just what I just said. Just talked to him about whether he sees a cultural change coming at the V.A. underway. I am working -- I will have a story that, that will have been run by the time this show airs and, on that topic, and he's, he's kind of optimistic. He thinks that, that the, the secretary, Robert McDonald, is trying to make changes, and he's not sure that he can overcome a bureaucracy that's resistant to the change, but he seems hopefully.

Ted Simons: The new Phoenix director, here for one year, will that have that be the one to replace Hellman if and when she goes?

Dennis Wagner: I have no information on that, but, it would -- I kind of doubt that somebody who went into retirement would decide to, to take the job permanently.

Ted Simons: That's true.

Dennis Wagner: Unless he got bored in retirement, and that could happen.

Ted Simons: You never know, he could be retiring and working. Also, you wrote about, and I found this fascinating, everything that, that -- many of the allegations in the inspector general's report, Pete, the V.A. knew about this back in 2008.

Dennis Wagner: Yeah.

Ted Simons: Explain, please.

Dennis Wagner: It's, it's been puzzling because I know that I put in for it, in the public records' request to the V.A., and others have for every investigation or report, that, that showed the delays in care to patients caused by a manipulation of wait times. The falsification of records, they did things like they kept secret appointment records, and they did the mass cancellation of appointments, and those things. It turns out that, although they did -- it was not a public report that, that the inspector general put out, in 2008, the inspector general came in here to review the same exact kind of allegations that occurred here this year. And, and found the same kinds of problems, and that report got leaked out now, and, and -- or a few weeks ago, and revealed that it is deja vu.

Ted Simons: And again, this, this -- this particular -- the failure, an oversight duty, they did not publish reports. They hid the level of fraud. They failed to hold the V.A. executives accountable, and the I.G. called it a breakdown in training and procedural problems, but as you said, this just sounds like hello.

Dennis Wagner: Yeah, and I think it's the most frustrating or perplexing thing for, for, for the Veterans, themselves, the is so organizations, the people in Congress who are looking at it. And they keep asking, why can't this ship change direction. It's like, people try to steer it on-course, and it just slides sideways. There is just a really strong sentiment in Congress, and now, I think, it's strong in both of the Veteran's affairs' committee that there is a lack of transparency, there is a lack of accountability, probably, even more importantly from their perspective, and, and that those, those two issues create an inability to change a culture that's, that's controlled by a bureaucracy.

Ted Simons: And yet, you are saying that, that with the new administration or the latest acting director there, there is hope, at least among Dr. Foot is suggesting, there is hope that, that the ship is, is starting or, or at least in mid-term?

Dennis Wagner: You know, it depends on who I talk to, what answer I get on that. I have talked to leaders of most of the Veterans organizations in the country in the last few days. I have talked to, to multiple whistle blowers. They are all cognizant that, that any, any reel change at the V.A. will take time. They are looking at all of the, the rapid fire reform efforts and personnel turnovers that have occurred in, and other actions that have occurred in recent months. And they are saying, those are pretty superficial, but the fact that they are doing those things gives an inkling of hope, a twinkle of a star. I think that they are saying, we have hope for, for Robert McDonald and his new regime.

Ted Simons: And last question for you, I know that you've been, been -- you broke this thing, and this is -- when you first start writing about this, when you first got information, you talked to Dr. Foot and all the stuff, did you have any, any idea that this story would be what it is?

Dennis Wagner: I knew it was a huge story. I knew that, that a story that talked about, about Veterans who were having possibly dying and having, having -- clearly having adverse medical effects because, because they could not get into see doctors, that were waiting over a year to get care. In a system that, that was, was, was completely dysfunctional based on the information that I had within weeks of Dr. Foot. I knew all of that was, was a terrible mess, and I knew it would gather national attention. I had no idea it would, it would go nuclear like it has.

Ted Simons: Yeah. Well, you have done remarkable work, and you are still on it, we thank you very much for your work. And thank you for appearing on this special veteran's day edition of Arizona Horizon.

Dennis Wagner: Thank you, Ted.

Dennis Wagner:Journalist, Arizona Republic;

Illustration of columns of a capitol building with text reading: Arizona PBS AZ Votes 2024

Arizona PBS presents candidate debates

The four men of Il Divo
airs June 2

Il Divo XX: Live from Taipei

Rachel Khong
May 29

Join us for PBS Books Readers Club!

Super Why characters

Join a Super Why Reading Camp to play, learn and grow

Subscribe to Arizona PBS Newsletters

STAY in touch
with azpbs.org!

Subscribe to Arizona PBS Newsletters: