American Legion officials met with a top Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) official in Washington on April 24 to address allegations made against the VA medical center in Phoenix, and how the department is responding to them.
Specifically, CNN reported April 23 that the Phoenix facility has been keeping a secret list of patients long-overdue for medical exams, which has been linked to at least 40 preventable deaths at the facility. The report also said the list was kept secret to conceal appointment delays.
Thomas G. Lynch, M.D., VA's assistant deputy under secretary for health for clinical operations, responded to questions posed by Peter Gaytan, the Legion's executive director; Jacob Gadd, the Legion's deputy director for health; and other attendees.
Lynch offered no useful answers. When asked about the Phoenix facility's secret list, he said it was created because some VA employees didn't use electronic wait-list software correctly.
"Answers like that don't increase our confidence that VA understands the terrible problems in Phoenix," said Daniel M. Dellinger, the Legion's national commander. "The fact that this secret list was maintained for quite some time, and that VA's Central Office knew nothing about it, is bad enough. But for Dr. Lynch to mask it as some kind of human error with software is inexcusable."
On April 24, the Washington Free Beacon reported that the Phoenix facility's director, Sharon Helman, received a $9,345 bonus last year, in addition to her base salary of $169,000.
When Helman's name came up at the meeting, it was explained that she had only been at her job for 18 months and, since her arrival, the current average wait-time for appointments at the VA facility had reportedly fallen to 55 days – down from more than 100 days, but still far from VA's goal of 10-14 days.
"Again, VA dodged the question," Dellinger said. "Dr. Lynch needed to tell us why a VA administrator deserves any kind of bonus – or a job, for that matter – when she is the person who authorized the use of a secret list that is linked to the deaths of at least 40 patients."
According to internal emails obtained by CNN, Helman was aware of the secret list and even defended its use.
Preventable deaths at the Phoenix VA facility and its secret list have caught the attention of Capitol Hill. Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake have asked the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs to conduct a hearing on allegations of patient neglect at the Phoenix medical center.
The committee's chair, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., responded on April 24, announcing that a hearing will be held after VA's Office of Inspector General completes its own independent investigation, which is under way.