At least 40 U.S. veterans reportedly died after they were allegedly stuck for months on a secret waiting list to see doctors in the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Healthcare system.
In what is being described as an elaborate scheme to make the VA hospital look more efficient than it really is, a CNN investigation has revealed that Veterans Affairs managers in Phoenix used a secret list to hide some 1,400 to 1,600 sick veterans who were being made to wait, well beyond the 14 to 30 days as per VA internal policy, before they were able to get appointments with doctors.
Dr. Sam Foote, a recently retired top VA doctor who spent 24 years with the VA system in Phoenix, confirmed the practice along with emails from several high-level sources which showed that top managers were aware of the secret list and even defended its existence.
"The scheme was deliberately put in place to avoid the VA's own internal rules," said Foote. "They developed the secret waiting list."
Foote explained that to cover their tracks, the VA in Phoenix shared a sham "official" list with officials in Washington, which shows the VA providing timely appointments while the real list is usually kept hidden from outsiders and contain wait times to be seen by a doctor sometimes lasting more than a year.
And while that practice endured, at least 40 of the sick veterans placed on the secret list died while waiting for care.
The family of 71-year-old Navy veteran Thomas Breen said he was one of the sick who died while waiting on the secret list and they are not happy about it.
"We had noticed that he started to have bleeding in his urine," his son, Teddy Barnes-Breen, told CNN. "So I was like, 'Listen, we gotta get you to the doctor.'"
On Sept. 28, 2013, with blood in his urine and a history of cancer, Teddy and his wife, Sally, took his father to the Phoenix VA emergency room. After an examination, he was sent home with a message to wait.
"They wrote on his chart that it was urgent," said Sally, who was the sick veteran's primary caregiver.
It wasn't until months later, on Dec. 6, that the hospital called Breen's family with a date to see a doctor. He was already dead. His death certificate showed that he had died on Nov. 30 from Stage 4 bladder cancer.
"We finally have that appointment. We have a primary for him,'" recalled Sally of the conversation with the hospital when they finally called. "I said, 'Really, you're a little too late, sweetheart.'"
CNN obtained emails from July 2013 which show that top management, including Phoenix VA Director Sharon Helman, knew about the secret wait list and defended it, despite complaints that it was "unethical."
"I have to say, I think it's unfair to call any of this a success when Veterans are waiting six weeks on an electronic waiting list before they're called to schedule their first PCP (primary care physician) appointment," the email states. "Sure, when their appointment is created, it can be 14 days out, but we're making them wait six to 20 weeks to create that appointment."
"That is unethical and a disservice to our veterans," adds the email.
The report noted that Congress is also tracking the situation and has ordered all records in Phoenix, secret or not, to be preserved as part of a wider investigation of delays in care at veterans hospitals across the country.