WASHINGTON (AP) — The nation's head of veteran health services told lawmakers Wednesday that a preliminary review found no evidence to support recent allegations of corruption and unnecessary deaths at the agency's hospital in Phoenix.
The Phoenix Veterans Health Care Center has been under fire in recent weeks over allegations that up to 40 patients may have died because of delays in care and that, to hide delays in treatment, the hospital kept a secret list of patients waiting for appointments.
"To date, we have found no evidence of a secret list, and we have found no patients who have died because they have been on a wait list," said Robert Petzel, undersecretary for health at the VA's Veterans Health Administration.
Petzel's comments came during a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing in Washington.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs inspector general is investigating allegations that have prompted outrage from political leaders in Arizona and around the country. A trio of Arizona congressmen this week called on the head of the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care Center to step down.
VA hospitals around the country have been struggling to handle the huge volume of patients who need medical attention, including aging vets from World War II, Korea and Vietnam and a newer influx from wars of the past decade. In the past year, VA facilities in South Carolina, Florida, Georgia and Washington state have been linked to delays in patient care or poor oversight.
Dr. Samuel Foote, who had worked for the Phoenix VA for more than 20 years before retiring in December, brought the allegations to light and says his complaints to his supervisors were ignored. He accused Arizona VA leaders of collecting bonuses for reducing patient wait times, but he said the purported successes resulted from data manipulation rather than improved service for veterans.
"Everybody knew that this was going on," Foote said in an interview with The Associated Press.
The chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee made a special point of bringing up the issue at the start of a hearing on a different issue.
"We will get to the bottom of what has happened in Phoenix, but we will reach conclusions based on an objective investigation of the facts — not TV reports — but an objective investigation of the facts," said Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, chairman of the committee.
The allegations should not be allowed "to impugn excellent work done throughout this country by hundreds of thousands of doctors, nurses and administrators on all levels" at the VA, Sanders said.