Official inquiries begin for Phoenix VA hospital with alleged ‘secret waiting list’


VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki tours the VA Medical Center-Hampton, in Hampton, Va. (Matt Eich for The Washington Post).

A congressional inquiry and a watchdog probe await the Department of Veterans Affairs after a Phoenix VA hospital allegedly tried to cover up delays in service for more than 1,400 sick veterans, some of whom died while waiting for care.

The VA inspector general’s office has launched an investigation of the claims, and the head of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), has promised to hold a hearing on the matter after the review is complete.

“Once the IG collects additional information, we can engage in a more informed deliberation on the allegations,” Sanders said in a letter to Arizona Sens. John McCain (R) and Jeff Flake (R), who requested action by the panel.

CNN reported last week that the Phoenix VA hospital developed a “secret waiting list” to avoid reporting extended delays as department policy requires. The agency paid a $9,000 bonus last year to the medical center’s director, Sharon Helman, who also received a base salary of $196,900, according to publicly available data.

Veterans groups quickly condemned the alleged scheme last week. The Veterans of Foreign Wars has demanded accountability, including criminal prosecution, for any VA leaders responsible for the purported actions.

“When you deal with lives, there should be no leniency granted to anyone with any knowledge of this alleged cover-up, to include everyone in Phoenix who knew but didn’t tell, and those in oversight positions at the VA network and VA headquarters in Washington who knew but didn’t care.”

The American Legion met to discuss the matter last week with the VA’s assistant deputy undersecretary of health for clinical operations. Daniel Dellinger, the group’s national commander, said the official provided “no useful answers” about the issue, claiming he tried to “mask it as some kind of human error with software.”

The VA said in a statement on Friday that it has sent a team of clinical experts to Phoenix to review appointment scheduling procedures and any delays in care at that facility.

“These allegations, if true, are absolutely unacceptable and if the Inspector General’s investigation substantiates these claims, VA will take swift and appropriate action,” the department said in a statement.

Follow Josh Hicks on TwitterFacebook or Google+. Connect by e-mail at  josh.hicks(at)washpost.comVisit The Federal Eye, and The Fed Page for more federal news. Submit news tips and suggestions to federalworker@washpost.com.

Josh Hicks covers the federal government and anchors the Federal Eye blog. He reported for newspapers in the Detroit and Seattle suburbs before joining the Post as a contributor to Glenn Kessler’s Fact Checker blog in 2011.
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