Whistleblowers come forward in Veterans Affairs scandal


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GWEN IFILL: Even in the aftermath of the resignation of its Cabinet secretary, scrutiny continues at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Jeffrey Brown has that.

JEFFREY BROWN: For weeks, the VA has been rocked by reports that scheduling clerks were forced to falsify records about how long patients had to wait for appointments. The department’s own audits found systemic problems across the country.

Last month, President Obama accepted Secretary Eric Shinseki’s resignation. This week saw several new developments, including accusations from a whistle-blower at the VA hospital in Phoenix.

To bring us up to date, we turn to Dennis Wagner, an investigative reporter with The Arizona Republic and USA Today. He broke the original story.

Dennis, welcome to you.

This new whistle-blower, Pauline DeWenter, she says she kept a secret list of veterans who were waiting months for treatment. Tell us about that.

DENNIS WAGNER, The Arizona Republic: Basically, what she said was they didn’t — they weren’t able to get people in to see a physician within a certain prescribed period of time.

So rather than put them on the — the actual official list, she would take screen shots of the appointment requests that weren’t retained in the computer, place them in her desk drawer and hold them there until they could get an appointment within the prescribed time period.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, there has always been this issue about whether patients died while they were waiting for treatment. She’s suggesting that records were tampered with to make knowing that more difficult?

DENNIS WAGNER: What she says is, after she spoke with the inspector general’s office and told them what she knew and provided documentation with them, there was a check of the electronic system.

And in at least six or seven cases, she had typed in where it asked why this appointment wasn’t kept, because an appointment was canceled, why it wasn’t kept. She had typed in deceased. What she said was that was removed. The words “written in error” or something like that was placed in the slot where the disposition was supposed to be.

And then there was another disposition which said no longer needed, meaning the appointment was no longer needed, which turned out to be true, because then the whole thing started when she would actually call patients to tell them that their appointment time was available, and the family members would say, sorry, you’re too late.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what you can tell us about her? What is she saying now about her own experience?

DENNIS WAGNER: Well, she just — just emerged as a public whistle-blower, although she’s been speaking to the inspector general for some time now.

So far, I have not heard anything in terms of retaliation. In fact, I have heard through channels at the VA that they’re confirming what she said and not disputing any of it.

JEFFREY BROWN: There was also a second whistle-blower that came forward this week, K.J. Sloan. She says she raised concerns about what was going on and was fired from her job. What can you tell us?

DENNIS WAGNER: Back in July, an employee at the VA sent an e-mail to several top executives, saying, hey, the way we are reporting that we’re dramatically improving the wait time slots here is completely inaccurate, and he said it’s unethical, and it’s a disservice to veterans.

And that e-mail prompted an ethics consultation — or that’s what they call it — but it’s basically a review panel, looks at the ethics of it. K.J. Sloan was the director — the head of this ethics review panel. She issued a report that basically said the way we’re doing this — these reports of data on wait times is a sham.

And after she did — and made some recommendations. And what she says is none of the recommendations were carried out. What did change was, she was dismissed as the ethics coordinator.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, also this week, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel released a report criticizing the VA, but also its investigative officer, for not taking seriously the internal complaints, probably of the very kind that we have just been hearing about.

DENNIS WAGNER: Right.

Now, there’s a couple of different level there. First of all, you have got the Office of the Inspector General had done quite a number of investigations and found this wait time problem existed.

And then it’s compounded by the Office of the Medical Inspector, which looks at complaints within the VA that are said to directly implicate the health and well-being of patients. And they were looking at these and coming back with reports that basically said, well, we can’t prove for a fact that the patient’s death or illness or whatever it was, was directly related to this problem. Therefore, we’re finding it an unfounded complaint or something to that effect.

And the Office of the Special Counsel basically raised a red flag on that, and did so in a letter to the president.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so let me just ask you in our last minute. In the meantime, since the scandal has come to light, are veterans — do we know, are veterans getting the care they need? That was something the VA said would start to happen.

DENNIS WAGNER: I think there may be trends in that direction.

It’s very difficult, as a journalist, relying on calls from veterans and calls from employees. You’re stuck with anecdotal evidence. There are some audit reviews coming out and some numbers coming out from VA showing that many of the patients who were on secret waiting lists are not on — or sidetracked off the system have been contacted and had appointments set up.

A dramatic number of them have had that, according to the VA. The problem the VA has at this point is that no one’s sure when its credibility is valid.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, very briefly, are you expecting to hear from more whistle-blowers in coming days and weeks? Is more to come?

DENNIS WAGNER: Five minutes before I walked into this room, I got a call from a whistle-blower.

JEFFREY BROWN: And are you able to tell us anything about what you just heard?

DENNIS WAGNER: Not the specifics, but, in general, this was an individual who’s employed by the VA in Arizona, who called me to tell me that, where he works, they are telling him to basically keep patients off the electronic waiting list or to not find them appointments at all because they are simply overloaded. They don’t have enough physicians to handle first-time primary care appointments at his clinic.

And he’s not been given any guidance on what to do with these patients.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Dennis Wagner, thank you so much.

DENNIS WAGNER: OK.

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