VA [Veterans Affairs] in crisis: The Arizona Republic investigation

Dennis Wagner, Deaths at Phoenix VA hospital may be tied to delayed care. The Arizona Republic, 10 April 2014. Winner of the 2014 IRE [Investigative Reporters & Editors] Award for Print/Online–Meduim. “IRE Judges’ comments: While the story of poor care for veterans has been told well by media outlets across the country, reporting by the Arizona Republic propelled this story into a national scandal with sweeping results. The team’s stories revealed that veterans were dying while waiting for basic health care services at the Phoenix VA. Meanwhile, officials were manipulating records to hide the long wait times. Writing more than 100 stories during the year [2014], the reporters told the stories of individual veterans whose pleas for treatment were ignored until it was too late. This skillfully reported series helped lead to national reform, investigations and resignations, including U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki. The project demonstrates the benefits of solid beat reporting and not letting go of a story once the national media jumps in.”

Excerpts from story:

The chairman of the House Committee on Veterans ­Affairs said Wednesday [9 April 2014] that dozens of VA hospital patients in Phoenix may have died while awaiting medical care.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said staff investigators also have evidence that the Phoenix VA Health Care System keeps two sets of records to conceal prolonged waits that patients must endure for ­doctor appointments and treatment.

“It appears as though there could be as many as 40 veterans whose deaths could be ­related to delays in care,” ­Miller announced to a stunned audience during a committee hearing Wednesday [9 April 2014]….

Current and former VA employees say long delays in patient treatment are being covered up….

Wednesday’s testimony came amid an Arizona Republic investigation into allegations by VA whistle-blowers who have complained about falsified records, preventable or premature deaths, mismanagement and other systemic problems.

Dr. Sam Foote, who retired from the Phoenix VA in December, provided the newspaper documents he filed with the VA inspector general seeking investigations of alleged medical-care failures and administrative misconduct….

Foote and other employees alleged a variety of other institutional breakdowns in Arizona’s VA, including:

• Medical record-keeping so backed up the system is 250,000 pages behind, and millions of records reportedly are missing.

• A compromised mental-health system where patient suicides doubled in the past few years, while staff ­suicides also emerged as a serious concern.

• A swamped emergency room that becomes the last resort for veterans who cannot get appointments with primary-care doctors or specialists. In some cases, VA health system employees have told the newspaper, vets with life-threatening conditions have waited hours without diagnosis or treatment because nurses are overworked and undertrained.

• Discrimination, cronyism and security breakdowns in the VA police department that endanger the safety of patients and employees.

• Hostile working conditions that caused an exodus of quality doctors and nurses, producing backlogs in specialty areas such as urology, where bladder cancer and other serious diseases are detected. Patients reportedly are referred to out-of-state VA centers or private physicians for treatment.