Whistleblowers say officials have been destroying evidence at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs hospital where at least 40 patients died from delays, despite requests from Congress to preserve records.
Dr. Katherine Mitchell came forward to the Arizona Republic with records that show the hospital was using a secret list to hide the long wait times veterans faced. According to the Republic, Mitchell sent the documents to the paper after receiving a call from a coworker that evidence was being destroyed.
"I had no doubts they were capable of destroying evidence, or altering evidence," she told the Republic. "So there I am, a 47-year-old doctor with two degrees, trying to figure out where to hide stuff.”
"I spent my whole professional life wanting to be a VA nurse, and then a VA physician,” she continued. “[But] the insanity in the system right now needs to stop, and whatever I can do to accomplish that, I will."
News investigations have revealed at least 40 veterans died while waiting for treatment at the Phoenix VA Health Care System. According to whistleblowers, hospital leadership was aware of the secret lists, which were used to hide the long wait times from officials in Washington.
The House Veterans Affairs Committee requested the VA order the hospital to preserve evidence for investigators, but the department waited eight days to issue the order.
Committee chairman Rep. Jeff Miller (R., Fla.) sent a letter on Thursday to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki asking why the department waited.
"It is extraordinarily disconcerting that more than a week was allowed to pass before any directive was issued to [Phoenix VA Director Sharon Helman] and her staff to preserve all potential electronic and paper evidence,” Miller wrote. “I would like to know why it took so long to issue the directive given my public request at a congressional hearing, the formal request letter to you, and most importantly, the explosive nature of the allegations regarding the deaths of veterans while waiting for care."
Miller threatened to issue a subpoena for the records if the VA does not comply.
“VA takes any allegations about patient care or employee misconduct very seriously,” the VA said in a statement. “The department asked the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), who is charged with investigating allegations of waste, fraud, and abuse, to complete a comprehensive review at the Phoenix VA Health Care System as quickly as possible. Additionally, VA sent a team of clinical experts to Phoenix to review appointment scheduling procedures at that facility as well as the existence of any delays in care.”
The department placed Helman on administrative leave shortly after the letter was issued on Thursday.
Mitchell also described being disciplined for frankly telling Helman about problems in the emergency room.
Her statements echo other whistleblowers, who describe a culture of intimidation and retaliation against anyone who challenged hospital leadership.
Dr. Sam Foote, the first whistleblower to come forward about the secret paper lists, said the hospital is understaffed and underfunded.
“The main problem in Phoenix is there's a horrendous mismatch between demand for care and ability to provide it,” Foote said in an interview with the Washington Free Beacon.
Foote said that when Helman became the director of the Phoenix VA in 2013, the hospital had roughly 7,000 patients on wait lists.
According to Foote, the hospital artificially reduced its backlog by printing out requests for appointments on a paper list, rather than the computer system.
Patients were only entered into the official system when their appointment was scheduled, giving the appearance of wait times as short as two weeks when in reality some of those patients were waiting five to six months—sometimes a year—for treatment.
Minutes taken from a 2013 United Arizona Veterans meeting show that Helman “reported that new veteran patients are being seen in 25 days instead of one year.”
Minutes from director staff meetings also show hospital leadership reporting dramatic reductions in wait times.
After the scandal broke, Helman denied any knowledge of the practice, despite evidence provided by whistleblowers that hospital leadership was well aware of it.
As reported by the Free Beacon, Helman received a $9,345 bonus in 2013, in addition to her annual base salary of $169,900. Overall, leadership at the hospital was paid more than $700,000 in taxpayer money, according to publicly available salary data.
“She got that damn bonus for getting return times down when we had thousands of patients waiting to be treated,” said Foote, who retired in December.
The hospital is now facing investigations from Congress and the VA Inspector General.