Phoenix, AZ – Last week, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) confirmed that veterans are still dying while they are waiting for care at the Phoenix VA Medical Center, the hospital known as “ground zero” for VA’s secret wait list scandal which emerged in 2014. Despite tens of billions of dollars in additional funding for the VA, a rotation of seven directors during the past three years, and tireless reform advocacy from elected officials and groups like Concerned Veterans for America (CVA), problems at the Phoenix VA have actually gotten worse.
Here’s a brief overview of the evolution of the scandals at the Phoenix VA:
March 2013: The GAO sheds light on systemic problems with wait times and scheduling processes at House VA Committee.
July 2013: Phoenix VA doctor, Sam Foote, files a compliant with the OIG alleging wait times stem from manipulation of data and that vets are dying while awaiting appointments for care.
April 2013: CVA launches Million Vet Backlog Petition to bring attention to the need for accountability at the VA.
December 2013: Foote retires from VA and assumes role of “whistle-blower” by meeting with Arizona Republic reporter to expose allegations that veterans are dying and wait times have been falsified. This month, OIG visits Phoenix to look into complaints.
February 2014: Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) introduce the VA Management Accountability Act of 2014, sensible reform legislation with the goal of empowering the VA Secretary to fire underperforming managers. CVA launches the VA Accountability Project to hold VA leadership responsible for department’s dysfunction.
April 2014: Dennis Wagner with the Arizona Republic break the first to report with VA whistle-blower allegations on April 10, 2014, triggering the critical nationwide examination.
April 2014: CVA holds a national press conference at a park in Phoenix just behind the VA Medical Center with Rep. David Schweikert (R-AZ) and draws a crowd of 150 veterans and their supporters, calling for answers and solutions to the scandal. CVA makes it an organizational priority to expose the scandal on a national level in order to hold the VA accountable and drive real VA reform in Washington.
May 2014: VA Sec Eric Shinseki places Phoenix VA Director Sharon Helman and two others on administrative leave pending an outcome to the inspector general’s probe. Policy makers and President Obama get involved, call for audits of all VAs across the nation while CVA and other veterans groups call for Shinseki’s resignation.
May 2014: The OIG releases a report that confirms whistle-blower allegations of mismanagement and the manipulation of data related to patient wait times. Shinseki resigns. Obama accepts with “with considerable regret.” Obama names VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson as interim head of the department while he selects a permanent replacement. He pledges to veterans “we will never stop working to do right by you and your families.”
June 2014: Gibson visits the Phoenix VA hospital. He tells reporters that 18 of the 1,700 Arizona vets who were seeking first-time appointments with primary-care doctors, but were excluded from the VA’s electronic waiting list, died before they were contacted.
June 2014: The VA releases reports that finds VA medical centers nationwide have misrepresented or sidetracked patient scheduling for more than 57,000 former military personnel, and about 64,000 more were not even on the agency’s electronic waiting list for doctor appointments they requested.
July 2014: Robert McDonald is confirmed as the new, permanent VA secretary after two interim secretaries.
July 2014: The U.S. Senate approves the reform bill, sending it to President Barack Obama. The bill makes it easier for veterans to seek care outside the VA system if they live a long distance from VA facilities, or they cannot get a timely appointment through their VA center. It also makes it easier to fire VA employees, giving the new VA secretary more latitude to clean house.
July 2014: Arizona Republic comes out with an editorial that outlines three recommendations for Sec. McDonald as he confronts the daunting task of reforming the scandal-plagued VA hospital system. CVA applauds the paper’s outline to fix the dysfunctional system, and agrees that the U.S. Senate’s version of the VA reform bill waters down real accountability and choice for veterans seeking timely care.
September 2014: CVA launches a bipartisan Fixing Veterans Health Care Taskforce to evaluate challenges to delivering veteran health care and the role the VA should play in the wake of changes in the health care industry. The VA, meanwhile, reaches settlement terms with three Phoenix whistle-blowers who filed retaliation complaints after helping to expose mismanagement and health-care breakdowns at the Phoenix VA medical center.
February 2015: CVA unveils a serious proposal for VA hospital reform dedicated to the principle of putting veterans, rather than the VA, in charge of the veteran’s health care. (READ: CVA’s executive summary)
March 2015: Obama visits the Phoenix VA with “quest to hear input from reformers.” Yet, CVA and other vets organizations were not invited to the president’s round table to discuss real VA reform.
April 2105: CVA holds rally to remember the one-year anniversary of the VA scandal and discuss the future of VA reform.
April 2016: CVA holds a two-year anniversary press conference of the VA waitlist scandal. Despite tens of billions of dollars in additional funding for the VA, wait times for health care have gone up at many VA hospitals and there are still almost daily reports of misconduct within the agency. Only recently have three VA managers at the heart of the scandal been recommended for termination – over 700 days after the scandal began.
May 2016: VA Secretary Bob McDonald compares wait lists at the VA to wait times at Disney World. CVA is one of the first veterans groups to comment on McDonald’s statement which show just how out of touch VA officials are with the reality at the VA.
June 2016: Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) releases draft legislation, Caring for Our Heroes for Our Heroes in the 21st Century Act, that would give the veteran more choice, flexibility and speedier access to care. The aim of the draft legislation is to provide more options for veterans who find that, for whatever reason, including excessive wait times, the VA system does not meet their needs.
October 2016: The most recent OIG report underscores the dire need for real VA leadership and reform now more than ever. More than one year after news of the wait list scandal in Phoenix broke, 215 deceased patients still had open specialist consultations on the dates of their death. One of these veterans “never received an appointment for a cardiology exam that could have prompted further definitive testing and interventions that could have forestalled his death.”
Concerned Veterans for America (CVA) Arizona State Director Matt Dobson issued the following statement:
“The Phoenix VA scandal never actually ended. The VA’s sixty-five percent funding increase since the 2014 scandals prove that this is not a resource problem. This is clearly a structural and cultural problem within the VA that needs to be addressed now, or we’ll be having the same conversation in two more years and after several more incompetent directors. The only way we can expect to see real change at the VA is with the real accountability reforms on the table in Congress right now.”
This month, the House of Representatives passed the VA Accountability First and Appeals Modernization Act of 2016 with a bipartisan vote. It would restore accountability at the VA by expediting the removal of problem employees, increasing the power of the VA Secretary to remove problem employees, and preventing bonuses for senior executives for the next five years. The bill also addresses the broken claims process – giving veterans more choices when it comes to appealing VA Regional Office’s initial decisions.
CVA continues to hold the VA accountable with exposing the continued scandal and fights to reform the VA with our support for the VA Accountability First and Appeals Modernization Act of 2016 and the Caring for Our Heroes in the 21st Century Act.