WASHINGTON, May 19, 2014 — The Veteran’s Administration abuses are picking up momentum as a national story, and the facts are falling like cascading dominos. There will be more revelations to establish the extent of the corrupt practices that led to veterans dying without treatment.
What we already know is remarkable in its degree of indecency. At the Phoenix VA Hospital alone, 40 veterans died while waiting for medical assistance.
Among the victims is 71-year-old retired Navy serviceman Thomas Breen. Breen was rushed to the hospital in September 2013 by his son and daughter-in-law because of blood in his urine. The emergency room doctor examined him and sent him home with an urgent order for an appointment with his primary care physician or urologist within a week. He was being treated for bladder cancer.
“We had noticed that he started to have bleeding in his urine,” said Teddy Barnes-Breen, his son. “So I was like, ‘Listen, we gotta get you to the doctor.’ ” “They wrote on his chart that it was urgent,” said Sally, her father-in-law’s main caretaker. The family has obtained the chart from the VA that clearly states the “urgency” as “one week” for Breen to see a primary care doctor or at least a urologist, for the concerns about the blood in the urine. Breen received no follow up care, urgent or otherwise, and lost his life.
Reports indicate that the Phoenix VA maintained a “secret waiting list” as a work around to avoid reporting extended delays, conspiring to fabricate compliance with service standards. Worse yet, the hospital’s director received bonuses for falsifying records. Sharon Helman was paid $9,345 for her efforts in hiding atrocious delays for needy patients, on top of her hefty annual salary of $196,000.
Helman came to Phoenix from the Edward Hines, Jr. VA facility in Hines, Illinois, where she served as Hospital Director from 2010 to 2012. Disturbing allegations are coming to light about the same type of activity there.
But the trail doesn’t begin there.
The VA moves bad administrators from facility to facility in much the same way as Catholic dioceses in various cities moved pedophile priests from parish to parish. Helman came to the Hines VA hospital from the VA hospital in Spokane, Wash., where she fabricated service records in from June 2008 to January 2010. She was outed by a Vietnam vet from the Navy who worked at the hospital
The allegations made by John Bedwell, a Navy veteran of the Vietnam War, concerned some of the time that Sharon Helman was the director of what is now the Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center in Spokane. Spokane’s Spokesman-Review details Bidwell’s reaction to the events that have emerged in Phoenix. When he learned about the latest scandal at the Phoenix VA – and that it involved his former boss, Helman – he was taken aback. “It really shocked me,” said Bedwell, who lives near St. Maries. “It was the same scenario we’ve got here – this electronic waiting list thing.”
While Helman was presiding over the same kinds of treacherous dealings with veterans in Illinois, the hospital received the prestigious Seven Seals Award from the Illinois Committee for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR). Helman accepted the award in a ceremony from Brigadier General (retired) Jack Kotter, the Army Reserve ambassador for the State of Illinois. At the time, she commented:
“Supporting the men and women who have served our country is nothing new to the employees at Hines. We are committed to our nation’s heroes, whether they are patients or employees at our hospital.”
This week, auditors from the U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs Office of the Inspector General began gathering facts at the VA hospital in Hines. Helman was shuttled off to Phoenix and the rest is a matter of an investigation that most likely will involve the FBI. Illinois Senator Mark Kirk was one of the lawmakers who called for the visit. “The inspector general should immediately broaden its investigation to include Hines VA and to deliver a swift and immediate report.”
VA agency head, Eric Shinseki, himself under fire from the American Legion and other veterans’ organizations, ordered Helman, Associate Director Lance Robinson, and a third unidentified employee on administrative leave. But the VA Hospital in Phoenix is by no means the only example of neglect of those who served.
Brian Turner is an Army medic who after his tour of duty, went to work for the VA Administration as a scheduling clerk. He’s now a whistleblower. Turner worked at two different VA facilities in Texas and told NBC that, “We were changing numbers, we were changing dates. We were cooking the books.”
Turner says he was compelled to come forward after Dr. Samuel Foote, a recently retired 24-year employee of the VA hospital in Phoenix, triggered the revelation of the unofficial secret wait-list enabling officials there to hide service delays. Foote estimates that 1,600 patients waited for treatment, and that it was not uncommon for patients to experience a year’s wait for a doctor’s appointment. NBC learned that when Mr. Turner began sending emails to his fellow employees with his concerns, he was brought into his supervisor’s office and told to stop sending emails. The VA public affairs office ginned up a whitewashed report at the time, dismissing Turner’s claims.
Dr. Katherine Mitchell, a colleague of Dr. Foote, also stepped forward to disclose that a fellow employee reported to her that hospital officials were shredded documents after being ordered to preserve all documents associated with the investigation. Dr. Mitchell, like Brian Turner, claims retaliation from VA officials angered at her disclosures.
There is a bit of a smoking gun in all of this that has surfaced. A ‘telehealth coordinator’ and RN at the Cheyenne VA Medical Center is on administrative leave as a consequence of an email memo that has been leaked to CBS. CBS reports that the email, dated June 19, 2013, describes a technique used to falsify appointment dates in order to comply with the VA’s directive to schedule all appointments within a 14-day window, regardless of how long the patients actually waited to see a doctor.
“Yes, it is gaming the system a bit,” the email said. “But you have to know the rules of the game you are playing, and when we exceed the 14-day measure, the front office gets very upset, which doesn’t help us.”
The email goes on to tell unidentified staff members, “You can still fix this and get off the bad boys list, by cancelling the visit (by clinic) and then rescheduling it with a desired date within that 14-day window.”
David Newman, a telehealth coordinator and registered nurse at the Cheyenne VA Medical Center, has been placed on administrative leave after an email directing another staffer to game the appointments system was obtained by CBS News, according to a report Friday on cbsnews.com.
The email, dated June 19, 2013, describes a technique used to falsify appointment dates in order to comply with the VA’s directive to schedule all appointments within a 14-day window, regardless of how long the patients actually waited to see a doctor.
Germaine Clarno works at the Hines VA facility in Chicago as a social worker and employee representative. About the secret waiting lists, she says their use was widespread. “Employees are coming to me from all over the hospital, from outpatient, inpatient, surgery, radiology.” Clarno was also interviewed by CBS News and told them that vets names were placed on secret waiting lists when they requested appointments but wouldn’t get an appointment booked in the hospital’s computerized scheduling system until a date came up that conformed to the VA’s goal of 14 days.
The offline list was to hide how often vets were not being seen in a reasonable time frame. She said the unofficial lists served to organize reporting “to make numbers look better for their own recognition and for bonuses.”
Being that Barack Obama has used the Harry Truman quote about “the buck stops here” ad nauseum, in response to what is now a record number of gross violations of the public trust, the words of Brian Turner have a special resonance with regard to this latest uncovering of fecklessness:
“The public should know that the veterans deserve the care. They have served this nation. And it’s our turn to serve them. They deserve factual numbers, no mishandling of any kind of medical records, no manipulating of any records.”
It is not likely that the seeds of betrayal in the Veterans Administration will not be found to have produced poisonous fruit in many other diverse locations. The ‘buck’ stops with Obama, but the blame and the shame seem to always be directed elsewhere. No one would be surprised to hear Democrats dub this as yet another ‘phony scandal’, and some will.
But screwing vets out of the medical care they deserve is a third rail that some in the president’s party cannot even gloss over. Senator Richard Blumenthal, (D-CT), said there was “solid evidence of wrongdoing within the VA system”, while his colleague Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), told Mr Shinseki: “The standard practice at the VA seems to be to hide the truth.”
For those who brush off every revelation of the mismanagement of one cabinet agency after another by the Obama White House as nothing more than partisan attacks: Try telling that to the families of the veterans who died waiting to receive medical treatment.