At the Center of the nationwide scandal, the Veterans Affairs hospital in Phoenix has had an employee, scheduling clerk Pauline DeWenter, come forward claiming that an ongoing cover up of patients death have occurred and she had maintained a private list of veterans who waited months for appointments. According to the Arizona Republic on June 23, 2014 and the interview DeWenter did with CNN, she has spoken to the VA Office of Inspector General investigators about the list, turned over evidence and reported her suspicions of cover up. DeWenter claims someone change entries on the electronic appointment records of veterans who died while waiting for care from “deceased” which she entered to “entered in error” and “no longer needed” with some being made in recent weeks. DeWenter further describes that a Phoenix VA Medical Center supervisor told her to gather new patient appointment request and put them in her desk due to the overwhelming influx of patients in early 2013. She further claims that more than 1,000 veterans were placed on the private list and remained there for weeks or months because they couldn’t be scheduled within the 14 day goal for wait times. She objected to doing so but was forced to by the Phoenix VA director Sharon Helman in an effort to cut wait times. At a congressional hearing last Monday, Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Ind., asked VA officials including assistant deputy undersecretary Thomas Lynch if the VA was aware of these claims during the four visits made to the Phoenix facility. Lynch replied, “I’m not aware of the revelation. I am aware that the OIG is looking carefully at all of the deaths that have occurred. I do not know of any attempts to hide deaths, congresswoman.”
Dr. Sam Foote, the retired VA physician who exposed the practice earlier this year, has kept in communication with DeWenter since December about the waiting list and questions why the VA left the former hospital management in place after the problems were found. While the appointment delay issue was first discovered in Phoenix, it was discovered that the issue is widespread throughout the VA nationwide. The VA, serving 9 million veterans, has struggled to deal with the mounting evidence that workers falsified reports on wait times in an effort to cover up long delays in medical appointments. An internal audit found that more than 57,000 new applicants have had to wait three months for their first appointment, while an additional 64,000 newly enrolled vets never got them. The director of the Phoenix VA, Sharon Helman has gone on administrative leave and the FBI has launched a criminal investigation of the facility. Back in Congress, both the House and Senate have passed legislation requiring the VA to pay private providers to treat qualifying veterans who can’t get a prompt appointment. Each chamber has appointed committees to deal with the differences in the two bills with lawmakers meeting Tuesday.