VA whistleblower: Patients "were dying while waiting"

A former Veterans Affairs outpatient clinic director said Saturday that what he knew about a VA hospital in Phoenix pushed him to alert federal watchdogs and later a congressional committee.

"I knew about patients who were dying while waiting for appointments on the VA's secret schedules, and I couldn't stay silent," Dr. Sam Foote wrote in an op-ed in Saturday's editions of The New York Times.

The allegations that veterans may have died while waiting for care in Phoenix has set off multiple investigations into the VA's practices. The VA's goal is to fulfill a veteran's request for a doctor's appointment within 14 days, but documents uncovered by CBS News revealed that some VA employees had ways of "gaming the system" to achieve the 14-day goal on paper while veterans actually waited longer to see doctors.

The internist wrote that his letters to the VA's inspector general in October and February went unanswered, prompting him to contact the House Veterans Affairs Committee and a reporter at an Arizona newspaper. Foote retired in December.

"Going public would damage an institution I gave more than two decades of my life to, trying to make a better place for veterans to get their care," Foote wrote. "But I had to be able to sleep at night."

None of the deaths of veterans in Phoenix have been formally tied to wait times, but at least seven formal VA investigations going back more than four years have documented the use of hidden wait times at VA facilities.

Foote wrote that he has "faith" in the VA inspector general's probe after meeting with investigators in Phoenix. He feels differently about the VA's internal investigation, which he said could prevent clinic staff members from being truthful because of a fear of retribution.

Another VA doctor from Phoenix told CBS News this week that she faced consequences for speaking out.

Dr. Katherine Mitchell told CBS News correspondent John Blackstone that she was moved out of the emergency room at the Phoenix VA hospital when she complained that it was understaffed and poorly run.

"In the 16 years that I've been there, every time someone speaks up for patient safety or concerned about patient care, they essentially are retaliated against," Mitchell told Blackstone.

In an email to the hospital's acting director, Steve Young, Mitchell urged for White House deputy chief of staff Rob Nabors to meet privately with hospital workers. Nabors arrived at the hospital Thursday.

"Most staff likely will refuse to speak openly in front of other administrators," she wrote, "because of palpable fear of retaliation."

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