Shameful

Last week, Dr. Sam Foote, who retired after 24 years at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care system, told a cable news program the Phoenix VA hospital kept two patient lists – an official one presented to Washington, D.C., Veterans Affairs Administration officials to prove it was meeting requirements for timely appointments, and another “secret” list of patients whose wait times for appointments could be as long as a year.

According to Foote, the list contained between 1,400 and 1,600 veterans and was an open secret among hospital officials.

That is sad enough, if true. However, his allegation that at least 40 U.S. veterans died while waiting for an appointment at the hospital, is a disgrace.

In the wake of Foote’s allegations, the U.S. House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs has subpoenaed all emails and correspondence between the VA and the hospital. Several elected officials, including Arizona’s congressional delegation, have called for heads to roll. For now, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki has put the hospital’s top administrator, Dr. Sharon Helman, associate director Lance Robinson and another unnamed official on administrative leave while the claims are investigated.

Lengthy waits for an appointment have been a recurring problem for VA hospitals. In recent years, new rules mandated all patients seeking an appointment at a VA hospital be seen within 14 to 30 days – and hospitals are required to document they are meeting those mandates. The Phoenix VA hospital is not the only facility that has been slow in assigning appointments for those needing health care. Apparently, other hospitals – while not resorting to secret lists – also commonly misled government officials as to the time it took veterans to get appointments.

Many in Congress have called for Shinseki to be fired, but he has support from both parties, including House Speaker John Boehner. Boehner, in vouching for Shinseki, said Congress needs to give him more power to “fire people.”

That would be a good start. Any VA hospital administrator more concerned about fudging numbers than about the health of patients should be fired on the spot – if not prosecuted. This is a shameful way to treat men and women who served their country and now need help from the agency supposed to serve them in return.

Congress must conduct a thorough investigation into why there is still such a backlog of veterans waiting to get a doctor’s appointment – and make sure such delays end immediately.