In 2014, allegations emerged that government officials had falsified data to cover up how long veterans were waiting to see doctors in VA hospitals. The scandal led to calls for Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign. After serving for five years, Shinseki resigned in May 2014. Meanwhile, the Obama administration ordered a full investigation into the VA hospital scandal. Here's a look at the events which led up to the controversy.
A Veterans Affairs ER physician, Dr. Katherine Mitchell, told new Phoenix VA Health Care System Director Sharon Helman that the Phoenix ER was dangerously overwhelmed in early 2012. According to Dr. Mitchell, within days after making the comment to Helman, senior officials told Mitchell that she had poor communication skills and transferred her out of the ER.
Later in 2012, electronic wait time tracking was put in place by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in an effort to improve patient access. However, in December 2012, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) told the Veterans Health Administration that the electronic outpatient wait time data was not reliable.
Three months later, the GAO's Debra Draper informed a House subcommittee that "Although access to timely medical appointments is critical to ensuring that veterans obtain needed medical care, long wait times and inadequate scheduling processes at VAMCs (medical centers) have been persistent problems."
Dr. Katherine Mitchell was placed on administrative leave in September 2013, after sending a confidential complaint to Arizona Sen. John McCain's office. The complaint was supposed to be forwarded to the VA Office of Inspector General, but instead, it was sent to the Office of Congressional and Legislative Affairs then to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
The following month, Sam Foote, a Phoenix VA internal medicine doctor, sent an official complaint to the VA Office of Inspector General. In the complaint, he said that data had been manipulated to show a reduction in wait times and that veterans were dying while waiting for their medical care appointments. Then Dr. Foote retired and discussed his complaints in an interview with Dennis Wagner of the Arizona Republic in December 2013.
Died While Waiting for Care
During a hearing in April 2014, Chairman of the House Committee of Veterans' Affairs Jeff Miller came forward with evidence from staff investigators that the Phoenix VA Health Care System kept two sets of records to hide the long wait for appointments. Miller said that dozens of Phoenix VA patients may have died while waiting for medical care. A week later, the Concerned Veterans for America organized a rally in Phoenix, demanding solutions to the problem.
In early May 2014, Shinseki ordered an audit for all VA health care facilities in the U.S. and put Helman as well as two others on administrative leave. Later that same month, after calls from the American Legion for his resignation, Shinseki resigned. President Obama called the VA hospital situation in Phoenix "disgraceful" during a press conference. "I will not tolerate it, period," he added.
Investigation Results and Reorganization
The Obama administration ordered a full investigation into the problem. A preliminary report, released on May 30, brought up numerous allegations and the names of 1,700 military veterans who were waiting to see doctors. These veterans weren't even on a waitlist for appointments at the Veterans Affairs medical center in Phoenix. The investigation would continue and expand throughout the year to include 42 VA medical centers throughout the country.
In July, former Procter & Gamble CEO Robert McDonald took over as VA Secretary. By Veterans Day, a reorganization was announced that would make it easier for veterans to gain access to the department and receive health care as well as other services. The reorganization would be called "MyVA."
Director of the Phoenix VA Health Care System Sharon Helman was fired in late Nov. 2014. Her dismissal came nearly seven months after she and two other high-ranking officials were placed on administrative leave. Helman's firing was the latest move by the Veterans Affairs Department as the crackdown on who and what caused the scandal continued.