Ex-VA doctor: Phoenix report a ‘whitewash’

A doctor who first exposed serious problems at the troubled Phoenix Veterans Affairs hospital told a House Committee on Wednesday that a report on patient deaths there is a “whitewash.”

Dr. Samuel Foote, a former clinic director for the VA in Phoenix, said the report by the department’s inspector general appears designed to “minimize the scandal and protect its perpetrators rather than to provide the truth.”

At best, “this report is a whitewash,” Foote told the Veterans Affairs Committee. “At its worst, it is a feeble attempt at a cover-up. The report deliberately uses confusing language and math, invents new unrealistic standards of proof … and makes misleading statements.”

The Aug. 26 report said workers at a Phoenix VA hospital falsified waiting lists while their supervisors looked the other way or even directed the fraud, resulting in chronic delays for veterans seeking care. The inspector general’s office identified 40 patients who died while awaiting appointments in Phoenix, but the report said officials could not “conclusively assert” that delays in care caused the deaths.

Acting Inspector General Richard Griffin denied that the report sugarcoated any information about the Phoenix hospital or the VA, and he disputed suggestions by several Republicans that the report was altered at the request of the VA.

The sentence declaring that investigators could not “conclusively assert” that delays in care caused any patient deaths was not included in a draft report, and some lawmakers have suggested that Griffin’s office added the language in an attempt to soften then explosive allegation that helped launch the scandal in the spring.

“Neither the language nor the concept was suggested by anyone at VA to any of my people,” Griffin said.

It is common practice for an inspector general to send a copy of its findings to the agency in question to elicit an official response, which is then included in the final report. Griffin said his office has a policy of making no substantial changes to reports after allowing the VA to inspect and comment.

Rep. David Jolly, R-Fla., said language used in the report obscured the fact that delays in care likely contributed to the deaths of veterans.

“We can play with semantics all we want,” Jolly told Griffin, “but right here at this table it was acknowledged that the (lengthy) wait list contributed to the deaths. That should be the headline,” Jolly said.

Jolly was referring to testimony by Dr. John Daigh, assistant inspector general for health-care inspections, who said under questioning from Jolly that delays in care contributed to some patient deaths.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald called the IG’s report troubling and said the agency has begun working on remedies recommended by the report.

“It is clear that we failed, regardless of the fact that the report on Phoenix could not conclusively tie patient deaths to delays,” said McDonald, who took office July 30.

Pressed by Jolly on whether he believes delays in care caused patient deaths, McDonald said, “What value is there in having the discussion?”

Still, McDonald told the committee he “owns” problems at the VA. “I am committed to fixing this problem and providing timely, high-quality care that veterans have earned and deserve,” he said.