Phoenix scheduling clerk helps blow whistle on VA scandal - Tucson News Now

Phoenix scheduling clerk helps blow whistle on VA scandal

Posted: Updated:

From CNN

First, the VA covered up how long many veterans were waiting for care.

Now, a scheduling clerk says the VA is trying to hide how many of those veterans died while waiting for care by trying to pretend many of them are still alive.

Pauline Dewenter, a scheduling clerk at the Phoenix VA,  is coming forward because she believes she knows something that is frankly unthinkable, and that's saying something considering the shameful facts of what we already know has happened at the VA.

She says someone now is trying to hide number of U.S. veterans who died waiting for care.

In seven cases so far, where she has determined a veteran on a waiting list was in fact deceased, she says someone above her has changed the record back: The veteran suddenly listed as alive.

"Somebody is going on that electronic list and where people are identified as being dead, somebody is changing that and saying, "No, they're not dead."

"Correct."

"To hide the fact people died on that list?"

"That's my belief."

"What would be the other-- any other purpose?"

"There wouldn't be any other purpose."

Why? Dewenter says the numbers of dead in this VA wait list scandal may be even bigger than first reported, and someone she says, is trying to coverup the record.

"And that has been happening fairly recently?"

"Yes."

"That is a cover-up."

"Yes."

"Do you feel that the investigators are onto that?"

"Yes."

"Because you told 'em?"

"I have surrendered evidence, yes."

If there ever was a doubt there was a secret waiting list at the Phoenix VA, dewenter says she's here to lay those doubts to rest.

Beginning early last year, she says she was told by managers to take requests for new appointments from veterans seeking care and hide them.

"What happened to those people?"

"They went into a desk drawer."

"So if you called for a new appointment thinking you were being placed on the electronic wait list, you were actually being placed on a piece of paper in somebody's desk drawer?

"Correct."

"Is that the secret list?"

"Yes. That would be the secret list."

"And there's no doubt in your mind that was a secret list?"

"No doubt."

The secret list began in early 2013, she says, because of a waiting list for treatment here that was simply getting out of hand -- 1700 veterans were on it.

Dewenter says you couldn't get an appointment for at least nine months, and with 40 new patients coming in each day, the list and the waits were growing longer.

That was a problem, because nationwide the VA had set a goal: every patient had to be seen within 14 days.

The solution at the Phoenix VA, according to dewenter and others inside this hospital: Keep one list that lied, showing veterans were getting appointments and another list, a secret list, that tallied the true and shameful backlog.

"So as long as the secret list kept growing, the goal was being met?

"Mm-hmm. Yes."

"That's terrible."

"It's beyond horrible."

There simply were not enough doctors, not enough appointments to handle new patients, backlogged patients, and, yes, very sick patients.

Dewenter, a scheduling clerk, was making life and death decisions.

"...and that really overtook even the wait list, because now I have a consult where veterans are very sick, so I have to ease up on the wait list. It just sounds so wrong to say, but... and work these scheduled appointments, so at least I felt the sickest of the sick were being treated."

"...and you were making basically those triage decisions?"

"Yes."

"...so you're bumping one veteran for the other based on who's the sickest?"

"Yeah. Yep."

The stress, Dewenter says, was unbearable.

Then came the call she had to make in early December.

She finally had an appointment available for a navy veteran who had come to the VA months earlier urinating blood.

"...so I called the family, and that's when I found out that he was dead."

Dewenter would not tell us the patients name, but it matches this story we reported early this spring.

Sally and Teddy Barnes told us their father, a navy veteran named Thomas Breen, died in November of 2013, after repeatedly being denied care at the Phoenix VA.

"They call me December 6th. He's dead already."

"They called you and said..."

"I said, 'What is this regarding?' She says, 'We have a primary for him.' I said, 'Really? You're a little too late, sweetheart.'"

"One case, the family member said, 'You're too late, sweetheart. He's dead. You guys killed him.' And I apologized."

"They have no quarrel about telling you how they died and if they screamed, and this particular veteran was screaming, 'Please, do whatever you can. Don't let the V.A. do this to another patient or another veteran. We do not deserve this type of treatment.'"

"The family member was telling you this?"

"The family member was tellin' me this, and I promised her that I would do everything in my power to never have this happen to another veteran again, and that's when Dr. Foote and I really started connecting about what was happening."

In December of last year, dewenter and a VA physician named Dr. Sam Foote told everything to the VA's office of the Inspector General.

"I thought that was a saving grace. I thought, 'Okay, this is it. This is gonna be all over,' you know? Then, it wasn't, and we were waiting, and waiting, and waiting, and waiting."

"...and nothing happened."

"Nothing happened. Nothing. We didn't hear any-- no, we didn't hear anything.  The leadership was telling us, 'Oh, we passed everything. We're not doing anything wrong.' And I'm like, 'We're not doing anything wrong?' and people are still dying."

"...and we were giving up hope, and that's when Dr. Foote finally decided that we need to contact the media and we need help with this."

Dewenter says until now, she was simply too scared to come forward.

The truth is she is scared.

"My life will change after this comes out. I will have people at work who are not going to like me because of what I've done, and I'll have other people at work who will say, 'Thank you for doing what you've done.'"

Copyright 2014 Tucson News Now. All rights reserved.

Powered by WorldNow