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Secret lists, deaths: Claims roil Veterans Affairs



PHOENIX (AP) -- A team of federal investigators swept into Phoenix last month amid allegations of a disturbing cover-up at the veterans hospital.

Their goal: to unravel the truth behind a secret waiting list supposedly maintained to hide lengthy delays for sick veterans, making it appear as if they were seeing doctors sooner when some may have waited months and died in the meantime.

The claims, which so far have not been proved, have thrown the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs into turmoil. Politicians have called for resignations, congressional inquiries are underway, and VA Secretary Eric Shinseki is appearing before a Senate committee in Washington this week.

And it's only the beginning. Shinseki has ordered an audit of every VA facility nationwide and similar claims of waiting-list manipulations have cropped up in other states. As the election-year talk surrounding the debate rages, here is a look at some key facts about the issue:

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HOW DID THE ALLEGATIONS COME TO LIGHT?

A former clinic director for the VA in Phoenix started sending letters to the VA Office of Inspector General in December, complaining about systematic problems with delays in care.

"The time is now. The place is Phoenix, Arizona where a message needs to be sent loud and clear to VA administrators and bureaucrats alike that the murder of our veterans for cash bonuses and career advancement will no longer be tolerated," wrote Dr. Samuel Foote, who retired after spending nearly 25 years with the VA.

Foote later took his claims to the media, then to Republican Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, who announced the allegations at an April hearing.

Foote says up to 40 veterans may have died while awaiting treatment at the Phoenix hospital and that staff, at the instruction of administrators, kept a secret list of patients waiting for appointments to hide delays in care. He believes administrators kept the off-the-books list to impress their bosses and get bonuses.

"If you died on that list, they could just cross your name off and there was no trace that you'd ever been to the Phoenix VA," Foote told The Associated Press. "As if you never existed. You're just gone."

Since Foote's revelations, two more former Phoenix VA employees have made the same claims.

But some question their motives. One employee, who first raised the concerns publicly a few weeks ago, was fired last year and has a pending wrongful termination lawsuit against the hospital. Before he retired, Foote was reprimanded repeatedly for taking off nearly every Friday, according to internal emails he provided the AP.

He said the reprimands were unfair and that he was overworked and had every right to take the days off. Managers said it looked bad for a clinic director to work just four days a week.

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WHAT IS THE VA'S RESPONSE?

Phoenix administrators vehemently deny the allegations. The VA announced recently it found no evidence to substantiate the claims after an internal probe.

The Phoenix hospital's director, Sharon Helman, scoffed at the notion that she would direct staff to create a secret list and watch patients die in order to pad her pockets.

"To think that any of us would do anything like that to harm any veteran for any financial reasons is very, very disturbing," Helman told the AP hours before placed on leave while the Inspector General's Office investigates. She has been provided with police protection after receiving numerous death threats.

Last year, Helman was awarded a $9,345 bonus in addition to her $169,000 annual salary.

Helman and hospital Chief of Staff Dr. Darren Deering, who remains in his job, said Foote and others have not provided names of any of the 40 patients or any documentation of a secret list. Foote, who would not provide that information to AP, said he obtained it through other employees at the VA. He won't say who.

Helman and Deering also speculated that if up to 40 patients did indeed die while awaiting doctor's appointments, some may have died from car accidents or heart attacks or other ailments unrelated to their care at the Phoenix VA facilities.

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THE FAMILIES

Grieving family members of dead veterans have joined politicians from both parties in protests over VA care. Several of them shared the stage with Sen. John McCain last week at a town hall meeting.

Many are appalled to think that their loved one might have been on a secret list while waiting to see a doctor.

Sally Barnes-Breen said her 71-year-old father-in-law, a Navy veteran, died while awaiting an appointment at the Phoenix VA. Thomas Francis Breen had bladder cancer and died Nov. 30.

Barnes-Breen said she took him into the Phoenix hospital with blood in his urine in September. He was examined, she said, and sent home, told they would get a call for an appointment to see a primary care physician within a week.

But the days came and went and the phone never rang. She said she followed up repeatedly, but no one responded.

"They left him to die," Barnes-Breen said during a recent interview while cradling a wooden box containing her father-in-law's ashes.

In early December, a few weeks after Breen died, Barnes-Breen said she finally got a call from the hospital with an available appointment.

"I said, `Well, you're a little too late,'" she said.

VA administrators in Phoenix declined to discuss Breen's case, citing privacy laws.

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WHAT IS THE OVERALL STATE OF THE VA?

The VA operates the largest integrated health care system in the country, with more than 300,000 fulltime employees and nearly 9 million veterans enrolled for care.

The Phoenix claims are the latest to come to light as VA hospitals and clinics around the country struggle to handle the enormous volume. VA facilities in South Carolina, Florida, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Washington state have been linked to delays in patient care or poor oversight. An internal probe of a Colorado clinic found that staff had been instructed to falsify records to cover up delayed care at a Fort Collins facility.

The VA has acknowledged that 23 patients have died because of problems related to care since 1999, according to an ongoing nationwide internal VA review, which showed that delays often occur when a doctor refers a patient to another physician, such as a specialist. During the same time period of the deaths, more than 250 million of these consults were requested.

The White House said the VA has made tremendous progress in reducing case backlogs, but that they need to be completely eliminated. President Barack Obama has said he remains confident in Shinseki's leadership.

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sw022551 May 14 2014 at 4:49 PM

IN THE OBAMACARE PACKAGE THERE HAVE BEEN CONCERNS ABOUT DEATH PANELS AND CONTROLS OVER WHO LIVES AND DIES. COULD THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION SOME HOW BE DOING THE SAME TO THE VETS?

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2 replies
jdmendel47 sw022551 May 14 2014 at 4:57 PM

fox news talking points

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Sherry sw022551 May 14 2014 at 5:10 PM

The death panels lie has been disproven. The whole deal about death panels was "cooked up" by right wingers who tried everything to stop the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) just like the right wingers tried to halt Medicare in the mid-sixties. Imagine that!!!

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russellhawaii May 14 2014 at 4:58 PM

As a vietnam vet,,the Denver va hospital has saved my life 2 times,,and now I will be doing the hep c trearment next month,,for the cure..As far as for me and quite a few of my vet friends the VA has done a real good job for us..Thank GOD for the denver VA.hospital and the clinics too...

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purpletoads May 14 2014 at 4:58 PM

What happened to Sally Barnes-Breen's father-on-law happened to my dad. I filled out the paperwork for the VA in Providence, RI. I hand-delivered the paperwork to the VA and was told we would get a call for an appointment. One month went by and I called the VA to see why my dad did not get an appointment. They reported they never got the paperwork and I replied that I had hand delivered all the information to the front desk. My dad was looking to get just his medication from the VA because he did not trust their doctors. I then filled out a second set of paperwork and again hand-delivered it to the VA. About 2 months later we got a call from the VA for an appointment. I told the woman give the appointment to someone else because my dad had passed away. She gave her condolensces and I told her this is an awful way to treat veterans.

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Gene May 14 2014 at 4:59 PM

The Obama regime with full support of Democrats and liberals have gutted what was once a great country. God help us.

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2 replies
Seektruth50 Gene May 14 2014 at 5:10 PM

get real fool, where the hell you been for the last 60 or so years

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1 reply
terranceherren Seektruth50 May 14 2014 at 5:18 PM

Seek is right, I am against this Administration but don't be foolish enough to lay the blame at the foot or one party and not the other

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sistmaxx Gene May 14 2014 at 5:57 PM

Gene I know it hurt people like you to admit this President has done more for this country without the
Republican support than you are willing to give him credit for. Talk to our troops who are home from
the war, those coming from Afgan. the ones your President Bush got us in, Where is Ben Laden, and other top terrorist ? .Have you check the market lately?, private sector jobs,Obamacare should I continue? supports equal pay for women,are you married, wage increase,immigration reform
under your president we were losing over 600.000 jobs a month ,you probably know someone who lost there job under Bush. If anything is gutted it's the space between your ears.I am aproud liberal

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kajoni.nancy May 14 2014 at 4:59 PM

Who is to blame? Our President doesn't know what hell is going on. We send millions,I should say Billions around the world and we can't take care of our veterans. We let them die. God Help Us.

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VietVetK9 May 14 2014 at 4:59 PM

I once went to get my travel pay at the Phoenix VA, which was about five dollars and change, as I did not live but ten or fifteen miles away from the Phoenix VA, I handed my
appointment voucher for travel pay to the male cashier, not knowing that the VA had started
collecting a five dollar co-pay and the cashier counted out my change and threw it at me
through the pay window, and slammed the security window shut and called me a SOB
for requesting the travel money........I am a 100% disabled Vietnam Vet who suffered two TBI's, in a years time in SE Asia a wounded American Veteran....and this was how I was treated !

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1 reply
terranceherren VietVetK9 May 14 2014 at 5:10 PM

Patient Advocate, get to know them

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1 reply
rudimario terranceherren May 14 2014 at 5:30 PM

You'd do better to put your faith in the lottery. Guess who that supposed patient advocate works for and who she paid by.

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kcarthey May 14 2014 at 5:02 PM

Before I comment, I'd like to know the time line on these incidents. I see the ObamaBashers are already doing their thing without all the facts on the table.

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robert.hall49 May 14 2014 at 5:02 PM

I am a disabled veteran and a patient at the Loma Linda VA medical facility. In 2004 there were two veterans that killed themselves in the parking lot at the Long Beach facility. In 2008 Obama forced changes at the VA facilities after years if review. The quality of care increased for years until it seems bean counters got into the mix. It became what was more cost effective not what was best for patient care. In 2008 I could call directly to the office where my Dr. is and speak to a nurse. Now those calls go to a call center and are answered by someone without medical training. Messages only make it to my Dr. 25% of the time and when they do it takes weeks to happen. Changes made in 2008 improved care to the veterans, even the people working there treated us better. Now changes are being made to cut costs that decrease the quality of care and slow its delivery. Obama has shifted his focus, VA is run like a car dealership not a medical facility right now.

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1 reply
laclaw61 robert.hall49 May 14 2014 at 5:30 PM

What are you talking about?...everything he (Obama) says is unfounded. I mean everything and you believe him. All the promises he makes never come to pass. He makes speeches with accusations that are statements that are not correct but the liberal press never prints the retractions or the errors. All you hear is the liberal news. So shut up

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edr48elliot May 14 2014 at 5:02 PM

Maybe we need to fund the VA adequately so there is sufficient staff to treat the veterans. The Vietnam war veterans are in their 60s and 70s requiring increased care. Nah! that might mean higher taxes; they can wait. Lets just blame it on the government rather than the people voting for politicians wanting to cut services.

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1 reply
Alan edr48elliot May 14 2014 at 5:31 PM

This Vietnam War Vet is in my 80's. I've been to the VA several times for treatments, evaluations and claims, related to Agent Orange exposure. Lyons VA Hospital in N.J. has always treated me right. Staff there is great and very professional. Maybe I'm one of the 'lucky' ones. Presently being treated by outside Drs. for the damage done by Agent Orange (cancer; heart). So far, so good...at least, I'm not on anybody's 'list". As for the claims, came back rated 100% disabled, but, I'd gladly give back the money for my good health.

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native555 May 14 2014 at 5:03 PM

They should investigate the Veteran's Outpatient Clinic in Pensacola, Florida too..
I have been "waiting" over 3 months for what I was told "is a simple nasal surgery", and as of today, still NO appointment, but I'm "On the List".
I put in a appointment request for nerve block injections, that's been well over a month ago, they tell me I'm "On the List", but NO appointment.... WHAT LIST ???
I still have No Date for this simple "in and out" procedure which I've had there before.
When trying to get a hearing test...I was told, "Our computer is down, and won't be working for at least a month or more, we will call you, or you can check back after then". but the clerk had no problem pulling up my info on her "NOT WORKING" computer.... that was pure B.S. so I guess they have a List" too.
My issues are minor compared to others but if they over-look "In & Out" care, figure what they're doing with high risk vets.

Instead of "paying bonuses", why not use that money to hire more physicians?

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