Report: VA Investigation Called a Publicity Stunt

Phoenix VA Hospital
Phoenix VA Hospital

The White House official investigating allegations that patients died waiting to see a doctor at the Phoenix veterans hospital may not have gotten access to the right officials during his visit, according to a report by the International Business Times.

An email exchange between Dr. Katherine Mitchell, a whistleblower at the hospital, and acting Director Steve Young suggests that White House official may not have met with employees in the best positions to describe problems at the facility, according to the report.

"The email string and [Young's] response indicates to me that the visit is more of a publicity ploy than a true fact-finding mission," IBT quotes Mitchell as saying.

Mitchell suggested that White House Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors meet with patient advocates, union officials, Suicide Prevention Team members and others, but Young said he was there principally to talk with veterans, according to the report.

A VA official in Washington, speaking on background, said Nabors met with Young and others in leadership roles with the Phoenix hospital and visited the internal medicine, mental health and prosthetics areas. He also spoke with veterans and about 70 local representatives from several veterans service organizations, including The American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans, Paralyzed Veterans of America, AMVETS and Vietnam Veterans of America.

Nabors visit was "separate and distinct" from the ongoing Inspector General's investigation, the official said. The IG approved the visit and meetings as independent of its own work.

Up to 40 veterans reportedly died before getting to see a doctor at the Phoenix, Arizona VA hospital. The dead were on an alleged secret list of vets waiting for an appointment. The purpose of the list was to hide the fact the hospital could not keep up with the demand for appointments, a former career doctor at the hospital told CNN last month.

After hospital Director Sharon Helman publicly denied the allegations only to be contradicted by other hospital sources, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki put her and two other officials on administrative leave. Young, director of the Salt Lake City VA Health Care System, was installed May 9 as the Phoenix hospital's acting director.

Since the allegations out of Phoenix were first reported, similar allegations of secret wait lists and manipulation of appointment schedules have emerged at 25 other VA hospitals and clinics.

IBT reports that the email discussion began when Young announced that Nabors would be at the facility on Wednesday "to gain a clearer understanding of the challenges we in the Phoenix VA Health Care System, and we in VA across the nation, face and what we are doing to address those challenges."

Nabor's visit also would be a "tremendous opportunity for us to showcase our commitment to Veterans and our commitment to moving the Phoenix VA Health Care System forward," Young wrote, according to IBT.

Mitchell replied that Nabors should speak with patient advocates, union officials, current and former employees -- including nursing supervisors and members of the hospital's Suicide Prevention Team -- as well as information safety officer staff and non-administrative police officers.

She also said many on the hospital staff feared retaliation by hospital management if they did speak to Nabors or the investigators from the VA's Office of the Inspector General. Mitchell told Young the Phoenix hospital "has a long history of retaliation" against employees who raise issues of patient care, working conditions, funds mismanagement and more, according to IBT.

Young responded that the focus of Nabors' visit was to speak with veterans.

"So we don't have much latitude in deviating from the itinerary," Young wrote to Mitchell.

A spokeswoman for the Phoenix hospital told IBT that Nabors was briefed by Young on quality health care, patient safety, timely access to care and accountability, and that Nabors spoke with "many different staff members and veterans."

Shinseki has vowed to hold accountable anyone found to have engaged in such practices, including backing a criminal investigation if the VA's Inspector General recommends it. 

At the same time, the retired Army four-star is feeling the heat from veterans groups and lawmakers. The American Legion, one of the largest veterans service organizations, has called for his resignation.

Former Sen. Bob Kerry of Nebraska, a disabled combat veteran of the Vietnam War, said on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" that Shinseki needs to go.

"He's a wonderful public servant and has done a terrific job in many other areas, but it is time for the president to replace him," said Kerrey, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for action in Vietnam.

Shinseki has said he will not resign and that he intends to serve out his appointment until it ends or until President Obama tells him it's time to go.

Obama has continued to support Shinseki, with whom he met at the White House this week.

Bryant Jordan can be reached at

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