New Report on VA Scandal: Over 1,000 Possible Veteran Deaths

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

The Veteran Affairs scandal, which has already led to the resignation of Veterans Affairs Chief Eric Shinseki, has resulted in better understanding of a backlog of care requests, mishandled and neglected needs of veterans old and new, a manipulated and abused system of accountability, and even deaths of those forced to wait indefinitely for care. The issue has now reached a fairly monstrous size and scope, with sixty-nine different VA facilities under criminal investigation from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. A new report from the office of Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), “Friendly Fire: Death, Delay, and Dismay at the VA” — quite the alliterative rhyming title for quite the serious subject matter — claims that over 1,000 may have died in the last ten years “as a result of the VA’s misconduct and the VA has paid out nearly $1 billion to veterans and their families for its medical malpractice.”

In the report Coburn, who is a doctor himself, criticized both the Administration and Congress for having “failed to ensure our nation is living up to the promises we have made to our veterans.” Poor care, bad scheduling, major and unnecessary delays, and corrupt employee policy, including underworked and overpaid staff and criminal activity within the VA, were all named concerns within the report.

The report also heavily criticized the Committee of Veteran Affairs within the Senate, saying it “has only held two oversight hearings the last four years, and was even profiled in Wastebook 2012 for being among the committees in Congress holding the fewest number of hearings.” Wastebook is a document published by Coburn himself on those Congressional projects he finds to constitute wasteful spending, or money that could be better spent. He also addressed the issue of whistleblowers, a particularly important matter in light of new information provided by just such an individual. “Bad employees are rewarded with bonuses and paid leave while whistleblowers, health care providers, and even veterans and their families are subjected to bullying, sexual harassment, abuse, and neglect,” noted Coburn’s report. Pauline DeWenter of the Phoenix VA hospital spoke with USA TODAY on her own disclosures. She worked as the scheduling clerk for the Phoenix VA where she said she was instructed, on threat of losing her job, to put away new appointment requests rather than deal with them. “I put them in my desk drawer. I didn’t know what else to do with them,” said DeWenter, claiming that her boss had “said during a meeting, ‘If you don’t do this my way, I will personally buy you a pass for the Seventh Street bus’ … out of the VA … I’d better follow her orders or my federal career will come to an end. ”

DeWenter had been keeping a “secret list” of over 1,000 veterans who had been pushed aside when the VA was unable to schedule them in time for the fourteen-day goal, a method for covering how long wait times really were. She recently released the list to the Office of Inspector General along with her concerns that records were being changed to mislead viewers. She pointed to seven veterans who had died while waiting on an appointment and said that while she had entered “deceased” as the reason for appointment request cancellations only later to find that inspectors were reading changed responses such as “entered in error” or “no longer needed,” saying that Pheonix VA Health Care System administrators knew that this was taking place.

“I feel horrible for what I’ve done. And I can not erase my role in this evil scheme and the best I can do is correct it now and use everything that I can to help fix the problem that essentially I helped create,” said DeWenter to USA TODAY. In the interest of encouraging and protecting whistleblowers such as DeWenter, Carolyn N. Lerner of the U.S. Office of Special Counsel wrote a letter to the President outlining concerns with past practices, listing recent disclosures at both the Jackson VA in Mississippi and the Phoenix VA. It criticizes “the years-long pattern of disclosures” and the “culture of non-responsiveness” facing those who speak out. “Too frequently, the VA has failed to use information from whistleblowers to identify and address systemic concerns that impact patient care … I recommend that the Department’s new leadership also review its process for responding to OSC whistleblower cases.”

She made note of the positive response from Acting Secretary of Veterans Affairs Sloan Gibson in her letter. In turn, Gibson mentioned Lerner’s letter in her own statement, saying “I respect and welcome the letter and the insight from the Office of Special Counsel.” She stated that operations within the Office of Medical Inspector were to be considered within a fourteen-day deadline — an ironic timeline considering the VA’s failed fourteen-day appointment goal. Along with instructions for the careful scrutiny of the OSC report, her statement made clear her position in protection of individuals like DeWenter. “Intimidation or retaliation — not just against whistleblowers, but against any employee who raises a hand to identify a problem, make a suggestion, or report what may be a violation in law, policy, or our core values — is absolutely unacceptable. I will not tolerate it in our organization,” said Gibson.

Meanwhile, the FBI Director James Comey has said in a hearing with the House of Representatives that its Phoenix division is working with the VA inspector general, and officials have said, according to CNN that should discoveries require it, the Justice Department will begin a full criminal investigation. Earlier, an internal audit from the VA showed wait times at ninety days and above for tens of thousands, and twenty-three deaths caused by unacceptable wait times were admitted — considerably below estimates from other sources.

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