PHOENIX -- A doctor who spent 24 years with the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Heath Care System is sounding the alarm about a so-called "secret wait list" on which sick veterans would be for months before getting a chance to see a physician.
Dr. Sam Foote alleges top management at the VA here in Phoenix created the secret list to avoid violating policy that requires patients be seen by doctors within a set time period. Foote says that time frame is 14 to 30 days, but he claims many veterans were forced to wait months, even years, to be taken off the list and be put on the official wait list.
Foote sat down with me to explain how the alleged cover-up worked. "The veterans tried to get care," he said. "They were put on a secret electronic waiting list, and if they died, certainly on the paper list, they would be just crossed off as if they had never shown up for care with no record to track back."
Management at the VA claims many patients were seen within a 14-day window from when they first arrived, but Foote says that is a flat-out lie.
"In 2012, we had 13,000 patients who did not have providers and the VA had been hiding this by putting them in holding clinics," he said. "The part about new patients in 14 days is a total fabrication based on a time that they were removed from the secret list and placed into the computer. The guidelines the VA wanted was below 14 days, so they just wait until there's an appointment and stick them in and pull them off the list."
Basically, patients would languish on the secret list until an appointment opened up. That could take weeks or months. Once an appointment became available, the waiting vets would be moved into the system and seen by a doctor within a reasonable time frame.
Foote says the reason VA management created the "secret list" was to boost up its percentages so management would get bonuses.
I asked Foote what he thinks should happen to these top administrators if his allegations of lies and a cover-up are true and there are veterans who are dead.
"I think they should face the same consequences the provider of a private practice would face for doing that," Foote answered. "Prosecution. If patients died because they limited access to them, and they could have been saved if they had been cared for, and they did that because they were trying to get a bonus, which we believe strongly that they were, then yes."
Foote claims that up to 1,600 sick veterans were placed onto the secret wait list in February. He believes veterans may have died because of lack of timely medical treatment. He claims the VA system is failing veterans who have risked their lives fighting for our country.
"We are trained every year on requirements and record-keeping and basically when someone prevents for care and you don't make a record of it, OK, and if they die and just erase it like they had never been there, that's a HIPPA violation and HIPPA penalties call for if there's harm to the patient and death would count as that $250,000 fine for each case and up to 10 years in prison."
In a statement released Thursday morning, American Legion National Commander Daniel M. Dellinger said if the allegations are true, the secret list in Phoenix "is one of the most abhorrent acts ever committed in VA history."
Dellinger is sending a team of American Legion experts to Phoenix next month to give local veterans a chance to discuss the quality of their VA health care.
"We're going to find out what happened in Phoenix," he added. "We are going to find out who was responsible for this secret list and if they are still working for VA. These preventable deaths keep mounting, and yet we see not a single VA manager being held accountable."
Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake both called on the Senate to join the House of Representatives in investigating the allegations.
"The American Legion will work with Congress and the VA Central Office to find out exactly what has been happening, and why," Dellinger said. "It is not sufficient for VA to simply say it's going to try to do better next time, without holding people accountable."