PHOENIX (AP) — An employee of the Veterans Affairs hospital in Phoenix that is at the center of a nationwide scandal over delays in care is alleging there is an ongoing cover-up of patient deaths at the facility.
Scheduling clerk Pauline DeWenter also acknowledged that she was the person who maintained a "secret list" of veterans who waited months for appointments.
DeWenter spoke with the Arizona Republic Monday and also did interviews with CNN. She told the Republic she has spoken to VA Office of Inspector General investigators about the list, turned over evidence and reported her suspicions of a cover-up.
That cover-up allegedly involved someone changing entries on the electronic appointment records of veterans who died while awaiting care. DeWenter said she entered "deceased" on the records and someone later changed the entry to "entered in error" and "no longer needed." She said some of the changes happened in recent weeks.
DeWenter said the Phoenix VA Medical Center was overwhelmed with patients in early 2013 and a supervisor ordered her to gather new-patient appointment requests and place them in her desk drawer.
She declined to name the supervisor but estimated that more than 1,000 veterans were sidetracked onto that "secret list." They remained there for weeks or months because they couldn't be scheduled within a 14-day goal set for wait times.
She said she objected to the practice but didn't complain to the Phoenix VA director Sharon Helman because Helman had warned employees to follow orders in the campaign to cut wait times.
"She said during a meeting, 'If you don't do this my way, I will personally buy you a pass for the 7th Street bus ... out of the VA,'" DeWenter told the Republic.
"My hands were tied," DeWenter said. "I tried to scream, and did the best with what I had. But the vets who were upset and deceased — I can't shake that feeling."
Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Ind., asked VA officials about the new allegations during a congressional hearing late Monday.
"You've been to the Phoenix facility four times? Are you aware of this new revelation?" Walorski asked.
"I'm not aware of the revelation. I am aware that the OIG is looking carefully at all of the deaths that have occurred. I do not know of any attempts to hide deaths, congresswoman," said Thomas Lynch, an assistant deputy undersecretary at the VA.
Dr. Sam Foote, the retired VA physician who first blew the whistle on the practice earlier this year, said he's been talking with DeWenter about the waiting list issues since December. He said Tuesday she was under "tremendous stress" and was not granting additional interviews.
Foote questioned why the VA left so many of the former hospital management team in place after all that has been learned about problems at the hospital.
"And it's somewhat shocking that they're still changing it from 'subject dies' to 'entered in error' — I don't see any signs of them stopping," Foote said. "There's somebody above her, and there aren't too many people with the keys to do it, who's been doing it. They've been putting them back on the electronic waiting list, which makes it hard to find them. And our speculation is they're doing that to try to hide them."
Although the appointment delay issue first became public in Phoenix, it has since been discovered the problem is widespread at VA facilities nationwide.
The VA, which serves almost 9 million veterans, has been reeling from mounting evidence that workers falsified reports on wait times for medical appointments in an effort to mask frequent, long delays. An internal audit released this week showed that more than 57,000 new applicants for care have had to wait at least three months for initial appointments and an additional 64,000 newly enrolled vets who requested appointments never got them.
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned May 30 and an acting secretary is running the agency.
The director of the Phoenix VA, Sharon Helman, is on administrative leave, and the FBI has also launched a criminal n investigation of the facility.
Meanwhile, Congress is considering legislation to address the problem. Both the House and Senate have passed legislation that would require the VA to pay private providers to treat qualifying veterans who can't get prompt appointments. Each chamber has appointed a committee to iron out differences between the two bills, with the lawmakers meeting Tuesday.