Secret VA wait list reveals 40 vets died while awaiting treatment

As many as 40 U.S. military veterans died while waiting for treatment at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care System, and were part of a "secret waiting list" designed to hide about 1,500 ailing veterans who waited months at a time to see a doctor, according to a CNN investigative report.

The VA system in Phoenix works from an "official list" that falsely documents timely appointments for official record, and a second list where patient wait times can last more than a year--waits that contributed to multiple patient deaths, Sam Foote, M.D., a retired doctor who spent 24 years with the VA system in Phoenix, told CNN.

The VA requires system hospitals to provide care within 14 to 30 days, typically, Foote said, but hospital officials instructed doctors not to create patient appointments in the computer system to hide how many vets weren't seen within that timeframe. Instead, doctors were told to screenshot appointment information on the computer, print out the screenshot and erase the data, removing any electronic record of a scheduled visit. The hospital placed the printout information on the "secret" electronic list and destroyed the hard copy, he told the news outlet.  

"So the only record that you have ever been there requesting care was on that secret list," Foote said to CNN. "And they wouldn't take you off that secret list until you had an appointment time that was less than 14 days so it would give the appearance that they were improving greatly the waiting times, when in fact they were not."

July 2013 emails obtained by CNN show hospital management, including Phoenix VA Director Sharon Helman, knew of the problem. 

The VA hospital conducted internal reviews since the allegations surfaced, and the Office of the Inspector General's office also conducted a review, VA spokesman Scott McRoberts wrote in an email statement to CNN. "We acknowledge Phoenix VA Health Care System has had longstanding issues with Veterans accessing care and have taken numerous actions to meet demand, while we continue to serve more Veterans and enhance our services. To ensure new Veterans waiting for appointments are managed appropriately, we maintain an Electronic Wait List (EWL) in accordance with the national VHA Scheduling Directive," the statement read.

The allegations come after months of reports from across the country regarding VA patients who died as a result of delayed care and long waits for treatment. A previous CNN investigation revealed at least six veterans at Williams Jennings Bryan Dorn Veterans Medical Center in Columbia, S.C., waited months for routine gastrointestinal procedures, such as colonoscopies or endoscopies, and died of cancer before clinicians could detect it, FierceHealthcare previously reported.

A Government Accountability Office inspection report on four unnamed VA hospitals released in December showed the facilities do not have adequate protection from doctors with a history of subpar treatment, according to a previous FierceHealthcare report. None of the four fully complied with all required procedures for peer review of patient care, which led to adverse outcomes, and failed to pursue several cases that potentially required disciplinary action.

To learn more:
- here's CNN's report
- read the VA's statement