"Why is this happening to me? Why won't anybody help me?" 71-year-old U.S. Navy veteran Thomas Breen asked his family as his health deteriorated, his years-long struggle with cancer nearing its end.
The veteran’s daughter-in-law recalled his final months in an interview with CNN: "At the end is when he suffered. He screamed. He cried. And that's somethin' I'd never seen him do before, was cry. Never. Never. He cried in the kitchen right here. 'Don't let me die.’”
Before losing his battle with stage 4 bladder cancer and passing away on Nov. 30, 2013, Breen and his family tried again and again to seek medical help from the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care system. But along with thousands of other veterans who gave their youth and energy to serve their country, Breen was reportedly placed on a "secret list" and told to wait.
Breen is one of at least 40 U.S. veterans who died while waiting for treatment, CNN reported, suggesting that the Phoenix VA used the "secret list" to stage a cover-up.
“These are extremely disturbing allegations,” Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said Thursday. “If proven true, these charges will only add to the growing pattern of preventable veteran deaths and patient safety incidents at VA medical centers across the country that are united by one common theme: VA’s extreme reluctance to hold its employees and executives accountable."
Members of the Senate concurred with Miller, with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) vowing to hold hearings on the matter.
“I am troubled when I hear that any veteran may have received substandard service from VA,” Sanders, chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee said Thursday. “We, as a nation, have a commitment to provide timely, quality health care to veterans, and I am determined to assist VA in meeting this responsibility.”
The "secret list," according to the CNN report, is no mistake. Rather, it is an “elaborate scheme” meant to hide from the federal government the fact that nearly 1,600 ailing veterans have been forced to wait for months on end for medical attention.
"The scheme was deliberately put in place to avoid the VA's own internal rules," Sam Foote, a retired doctor who spent 24 years working for the Phoenix VA hospital, told CNN, adding that the list is the invention of hospital management. "They developed the secret waiting list.”
There are two lists that the Phoenix VA uses for patient appointments, the retired doctor said. There’s an “official list," which shows that veterans are being provided timely and effective medical care.
“So then when they did that, they would report to Washington, 'Oh yeah. We're makin' our appointments within -- within 10 days, within the 14-day frame,’” Foote said.
Then there’s the “secret” list, which accurately reflects the fact that veterans are being forced to wait months for medical care. Some have been forced to wait “six, nine, in some cases 21 months," Foote said.
It appears that Phoenix VA Director Sharon Helman, who received a $9,345 bonus in 2013, in addition to her annual salary of $169,900, according to the Washington Free Beacon, is aware of the long wait times and the group's used of a secret waiting list, according to documents reviewed by TheBlaze. In fact, according to at least one internal email, the Phoenix VA director appeared to defend the use of the so-called "secret list."
Helman has vowed to cooperate with the proper authorities.
"It is disheartening to hear allegations about Veterans care being compromised," the VA director said in a statement, "and we are open to any collaborative discussion that assists in our goal to continually improve patient care."
Part of the secret wait list scheme, Foote said, involves shredding documents. Some employees are even instructed to pretend to schedule veterans for appointments. For example, when a veteran seeks medical attention, a VA employee would “enter information into the computer and do a screen capture hard copy printout. They then do not save what was put into the computer so there's no record that you were ever here,” he said.
Accurate information regarding when veterans first started waiting for treatment is then destroyed, as a phony list takes its place.
"That hard copy, if you will, that has the patient demographic information is then taken and placed onto a secret electronic waiting list, and then the data that is on that paper is shredded," Foote said.
"So the only record that you have ever been there requesting care was on that secret list," he added. "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."
Approximately 1,600 sick veterans have been left to wait on the "secret list," Foote said. And when a veteran on the waiting list dies, his name is simply removed.
"They could just remove you from that list, and there's no record that you ever came to the VA and presented for care. ... It's pretty sad,” the retired doctor said.
The Phoenix VA said in an official statement: "We have conducted robust internal reviews since these allegations surfaced and welcome the results from the Office of Inspector General's review. We take these allegations seriously."
CNN reported Foote’s claims were later confirmed by additional VA sources. The VA Office of Inspector General will investigate the matter starting next week.
TheBlaze’s Elizabeth Kreft contributed to this report.
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