The Department of Veterans Affairs lead healthcare official told a Senate panel on Tuesday that agency officials have not found evidence that the VA Medical Center in Phoenix, Arizona, maintained a secret list of veterans who could not get in for doctor's appointments.
Up to 40 patients reportedly died while on the list, according to a report by CNN in April. The alleged secret list was maintained so that an official appointments list would not reflect the backlog of veterans unable to see a doctor, CNN reported.
"We have found no evidence of a secret list," VA Under Secretary for Health Dr. Robert Petzel told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. "If the allegations are true that is not acceptable. If the Inspector General confirms or substantiates [the allegations] we will take swift and very appropriate action" against those responsible.
Petzel said the department is also reviewing its medical centers nationwide to ensure that the appointments' processes are being carried out correctly.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, chairman of the Senate veterans' panel, has already announced the committee would hold hearings on the claims after the VA's IG office completes its investigation.
The hidden list included between 1,400 and 1,600 names, Dr. Sam Foote, who recently retired after a 24-year career with the Phoenix VA hospital, told CNN. The network said several high-level VA staffers confirmed Foote's claims.
Left unclear during Petzel's appearance before the Senate panel on Tuesday is whether he was speaking narrowly when he said there is no secret list of veterans awaiting appointments.
Foote described the list as an electronic waiting list.
Military.com reported two years ago that VA medical centers are supposed to maintain an electronic waiting list that accurately reflects any backlog in appointments.
The electronic waiting list is kept so that VA officials can "track demand versus the availability of services," Nicholas Tolentino, a former mental health administrator at the VA Medical Center in Manchester, New Hampshire, told lawmakers in April 2012.
Tolentino, who became a whistleblower when concerns he raised about care at the Manchester VA were ignored, told a House Veterans Affairs Committee that VA officials across the country routinely looked for loopholes in VA performance standards.
Also, he said, managers had an additional, financial incentive to "game" the system because their bonuses were linked to meeting the standards.
"The upshot of these all too widespread practices is that meeting a performance target, rather than meeting the needs of the veteran, becomes the overriding priority in providing care," he told Congress.
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