The scheme to cover up long waits at VA hospitals worked like this: The local VA administrators in numerous VA hospitals would not officially book an appointment — however direly needed — until an opening in a doctor's schedule came up, essentially keeping a waiting list to get onto the official waiting list. In other instances, the politicians in charge of the facilities would constantly cancel and reschedule appointments in order to make it appear that the overwhelming majority of appointments were made within the VA's stated goal of a 14-day window. This allowed administrators to boast they had moved toward compliance with the 14-day mandate coming out of Washington. “Yes, this is gaming the system a bit,” a supervisor's e-mail sent to Cheyenne, Wyoming, workers acknowledged. "When we exceed the 14 day measure, the front office gets very upset, which doesn't help us." The e-mail had been sent by a VA worker-turned-whistleblower to CBS News May 9.
Despite claims by administrators that waiting times were shorter under the Obama administration, actual waiting times by veterans were often months or longer. American Legion National Commander Daniel Dellinger testified May 15 before Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, “While a veteran might wait more than two weeks for most primary care appointments, specialty care appointments can take many months or even years.”
The scandal — while simmering for months or even years — made national news with an investigation into the Phoenix, Arizona hospital. But in recent weeks various news outlets have reported similar incidents in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Ft. Collins, Colorado; Cheyenne, Wyoming; Austin, Texas; and Atlanta, Georgia. More instances of “secret waiting lists” are expected to be revealed in the coming months. The Atlanta ABC-television affiliate WSB-TV claimed “hundreds” of deaths since 2001 in an investigation.
Perhaps the biggest break in the story was an April 30 report by CNN, which noted, “The secret list was part of an elaborate scheme designed by Veterans Affairs managers in Phoenix who were trying to hide that 1,400 to 1,600 sick veterans were forced to wait months to see a doctor, according to a recently retired top VA doctor and several high-level sources.... Internal e-mails obtained by CNN show that top management at the VA hospital in Arizona knew about the practice and even defended it.”
Drew Griffin of CNN interviewed the director of the Phoenix facility, Sharon Helman and the chief of staff, Dr. Darren Deering on May 1, and when Griffin asked Deering, "Have you found instances where veterans are on the waiting list and have died?" Deering replied, "Yes."
CNN noted that “as many as” 40 deaths are attributable to the Phoenix hospital alone and that as late as May 23 of this year, veterans are still waiting as long as 55 days for an appointment.
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Photo of the Phoenix VA Health Care Center: AP Images