VA Whistle-blower Claims Agency Covered Up Deaths

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A whistle-blower, Pauline DeWenter, has come forward over the continued problems plaguing the Veteran Affairs department and in an CNN interview claimed that the agency has been manipulating statistics to cover up the number of people dying while placed on wait lists. The revelation is perhaps the most damning yet for an agency already besieged by accusations of incompetence and outright neglect.

Ms. DeWenter’s accusations could prove to be especially damning. She is the scheduling clerk for the Phoenix VA and as such has an inside view at how the VA schedules treatment and the nature of the now infamous wait lists. Ms. DeWenter claims that she was instructed by supervisors to engage in numerous illicit activities, including modifying medical records.

Accusations nothing short of damning

Among Ms. DeWenter’s many responsibilities was calling patients to inform them that an appointment had become available. Sometimes, however, upon making a scheduling call, she’d find out that the patient had died while on the wait list. She would then record the death and add a note to the file.

When a deceased patient was suddenly brought back to life, at least from an administrative point of view, he or she was placed back on the wait list. In a sense, the death was kicked down the road, and would not be recorded again until someone followed up to schedule an appointment with the deceased person.

Ms. DeWenter claims that on at least seven occasions, the medical notes she made were changed, deleted, or otherwise altered to cover up the deaths. The patients’ records were altered to make it look like they were still alive, effectively covering up the death. Perhaps most concerning, the cover ups continued even after the recent shakeup at the VA and the increased scrutiny being placed on the agency.

Ms. DeWenter’s accusations didn’t stop there, however. Ms. DeWenter also revealed that new requests for treatment were essentially stuffed into a drawer and hidden away. The “lost” requests thus were never recorded in the VA’s official books. This drawer became the so-called “secret list” of patients awaiting treatment.

Ms. DeWenter’s claims are in line with other accusations and the statements of other whistle-blowers. They point to a deep seeded culture of corruption within the VA itself. Dozens of patients, at the very least, have died while on wait lists, a tragic end for veterans who were injured while serving their country.

VA claims it will embrace whistle blowers

Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson has promised that the VA will embrace whistle-blowers and that they will be protected. While numerous leaders have tried to reform the VA, so far those efforts have fallen short. The Agency appears to have become closed off from the world with managers chasing statistics, rather than actually improving performance.

So far, at least 37 whistle-blowers have stepped forward, and many of them have faced persecution from the VA itself. Currently, the agency is being investigated by the U.S. Office of the Special Counsel on charges of alleged retaliation. In one case, a whistle-blower was actually suspended for questioning improper scheduling procedures.

Secretary Gibson has released a statement vowing to protect VA whistle-blowers. He has come on record as being deeply concerned about the accusations themselves, and has also ordered a review of the Office of Medical Inspector, which is charged with following up on whistle-blower accusations, among other things.

Former VA secretary Eric Shinseki was forced to resign amid allegations that he was unfit to handle the agency and its ongoing crisis. With the agency coming under intense scrutiny and the likelihood that more whistle-blowers will be encouraged to come forward, the next several weeks will be trying for the VA, to say the least.

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