PHOENIX — A scheduling employee for the Phoenix VA Health Care System disclosed Monday that she was the keeper of a "secret list" of veterans who waited months for medical care. She also accused others of altering records after the scandal broke to try to hide the deaths of at least seven veterans awaiting care.
Pauline DeWenter went public as a whistle-blower Monday, saying she has spoken to investigators in the Department of Veterans Affairs' Office of Inspector General about the waiting list and her suspicions of an orchestrated cover-up.
Her allegations were first reported by CNN. Later Monday, DeWenter sat for an interview with The Arizona Republic to discuss her allegations.
She said the Phoenix VA Medical Center in early 2013 was having difficulty meeting a surge in demand for medical appointments. DeWenter said a supervisor, who she declined to name, ordered her to gather new-patient appointment requests week after week and place them in her desk drawer.
She estimated that more than 1,000 veterans were sidetracked onto that "secret list" — ignored for weeks or months because they couldn't be scheduled within a 14-day goal set for wait times by VA administrators.
DeWenter, a medical support assistant for nine years, said she objected to the practice but was ignored by her supervisor. She said she did not complain to the Phoenix VA system's director, Sharon Helman, because Helman had warned employees to follow orders in the campaign to cut wait times.
"She said during a meeting, 'If you don't do this my way, I will personally buy you a pass for the Seventh Street bus ... out of the VA,' " DeWenter said.
DeWenter said she feels horrible about her part in carrying out a scheme that hurt veterans. "I'm a bad person," she said, crying. "My hands were tied. I tried to scream, and did the best with what I had. But the vets who were upset and deceased — I can't shake that feeling."
Helman has not responded to The Republic's requests for comment since she was placed on administrative leave last month. A department spokeswoman could not be reached Monday evening to comment on DeWenter's allegations.
DeWenter, a U.S. Army veteran who trained as a combat medic, said she also handled appointments for specialist referrals and was forced to choose which patients would get care and which would have their appointment requests set aside. For example, she said, the Emergency Department might have called for a person with sexually transmitted disease to see a specialist within 72 hours, while a veteran with nodes on his lungs was given a 30-day time frame. DeWenter said she used common sense to triage those patients.
Late last year, DeWenter said, she struggled to find an appointment for a Navy veteran who reported urinating blood. In December, when she was finally able to find an opening, she called the family and was informed the patient already had died. The patient's medical chart, she learned, called for him to be seen urgently — within a week.
"She told me, 'You're too late, sweetheart,' " DeWenter said. "The first thing I did was apologize. ... I vowed to that family I would do everything in my power to make sure this never happens to another veteran. But it's taken such a long time."
DeWenter said she began working behind the scenes with Dr. Sam Foote, a Phoenix VA physician who retired in December after telling the Inspector General's Office everything he knew. She eventually joined him in speaking with investigators from the Office of Inspector General, the Office of Special Counsel and the Government Accountability Office.
But, as time passed, DeWenter said, it appeared nobody was going to take action to stop the appointment falsifications, or to protect veterans. "You start getting a feeling like, 'Maybe I'm wrong and they're right. I guess this is OK,' " she said.
While investigations dragged on, DeWenter added, someone at the Phoenix VA tried to cover up records for seven veterans who died while awaiting care. On computer forms, she said, she had typed the word "deceased" in a location explaining why a medical appointment never occurred. But, when the electronic form was checked by inspectors, they found the designation had been replaced with "entered in error" and a notation that the appointment was "no longer needed."
DeWenter said she provided documentary evidence to the inspector general, members of Congress and the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs.
Asked if administrators in the Phoenix VA Health Care System were aware that appointment records were being falsified, DeWenter nodded. "They knew. They knew."
Wagner also reports for The Arizona Republic.