Two AFGE whistleblowers played significant roles in the eventual termination of former Phoenix VA Director Sharon Helman.
Helman was fired Monday after having been suspended following allegations of mismanagement, delayed care for veterans, and cover-ups. Dr. Katherine Mitchell, medical director of the Phoenix VA’s post-deployment clinic, and Pauline DeWenter, a scheduling clerk at the Phoenix VA, talked to CNN earlier this year about how veterans had to wait up to 10 months to get their appointments, many of whom died while waiting for care.
Dr. Mitchell, a member of AFGE Local 1738, laid out allegations to CNN in May about how Phoenix VA ignored a national mandate to prioritize Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, making them wait for six to 10 months to get a new appointment. “We’re talking about people that were injured by being blown up by IEDs [improvised explosive devices]. We’re talking about people who had a mental breakdown and have severe PTSD and are having trouble functioning,” she told CNN.
Dr. Mitchell added the problem was that VA didn’t have enough doctors to care for veterans. And that was because of low pay, a slow hiring process, and a lack of qualified applicants. This problem is not unique to Phoenix VA; it’s across the country, which is why VA hospitals are hiding a backlog.
“These guys who committed suicide, who were successful suicide completions, would have benefited from more intense mental health treatment. And those appointments weren’t available,” said Mitchell.
In June, DeWenter, a member of AFGE Local 2382, talked to CNN about how the hospital altered records of veterans who had died waiting for care and listed them as living. As a scheduling clerk, she called veterans when appointments became available and when she found out they had died, she would enter that on their records. But those records were later changed or written over by someone else to hide the fact that they died waiting for care.
“I would say (it was done) to hide the fact,” she told CNN. “Because it is marked a death, and that death needs to be reported. So if you change that to, ‘entered in error’ or, my personal favorite, ‘no longer necessary,’ that makes the death go away. So the death would never be reported then.”
She was also instructed to hide new requests for treatment by stuffing them into a drawer to make the books look better when VA was paying bonuses to senior executives for meeting the goals of providing care for veterans in a timely manner, usually within 14 days.
The horrifying accounts from DeWenter, Dr. Mitchell, and other whistleblowers led to Senate hearings and massive investigations at Phoenix VA and other VA hospitals.
Helman was also linked to another cover-up to hide veteran suicides at one of the VA facilities in Spokane, Wash., where she served as director. She was transferred to the VA facility in Hines, Ill., after it was revealed that veteran suicide data had been falsified. She moved to Phoenix from there.