VA chief says hospital workers disciplined, but many still employed

Eric Shinseki, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, is under fire after reports surfaced of a secret patient waiting list at a Phoenix VA hospital, where patients allegedly died as they waited for appointments

At least 40 U.S. veterans died waiting for appointments at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care system, many of whom were placed on a secret waiting list. The secret list was designed by VA managers in Phoenix to hide 1,400 to 1,600 sick veterans forced to wait months to see a doctor.

Washington, DC (CBS) - Eric Shinseki, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, is under fire after reports surfaced of a secret patient waiting list at a Phoenix VA hospital, where patients allegedly died as they waited for appointments. The American Legion, the nation's largest veteran group, has called for his resignation, though he continues to have the support of other veterans networks as well as the full backing of President Barack Obama.

For more than a year, CBS News has reported on serious patient care issues at VA hospitals, from preventable patient deaths in Pittsburgh and Atlanta -- and bonuses given to officials at those hospitals -- to the over-prescription of dangerously addictive painkillers to veterans.

Wyatt Andrews asked Shinseki who's being held accountable:

In an email to CBS News, VA spokeswoman Victoria Dillon wrote that seven employees were punished in Atlanta, and two retired. CBS News has learned that five of those employees received written reprimands and are still employed by VA. One of the employees to retire, Atlanta VA director James A. Clark, received more than $31,000 in bonuses, according to internal VA documents obtained by CBS News, the years the Inspector General found two mental health patients died due to improper monitoring.

And two years after a Legionnaires' disease outbreak at the Pittsburgh VA, which claimed the lives of five veterans, VA spokeswoman Dillon told CBS News in an email that the agency "has initiated administrative actions related to the outbreak," and that the "administrative review was initially paused to avoid interfering with the ongoing investigations" by the Inspector General and the U.S. Attorney's office.

The director of the Pittsburgh VA, Terry Gerigk Wolf, received a $12,924 bonus the year of the outbreak. Dillon told CBS News that she is still employed at the hospital. Its regional director, Michael Moreland, received a $62,895 bonus -- just days after the release of a scathing Inspector General's report. Shinseki had nominated Moreland for the award in the first place. Six months later, Moreland retired. Dillon wrote in an email that Moreland's award was "given prior to any awareness of the potential of preventable legionella deaths in one of the hospitals."

In the case of Michael Moreland, VA officials said his bonus was under review in the wake of the Legionnaires' disease outbreak. But seven months after his retirement, there is no evidence that a decision was made to rescind his bonus.

Andrews also asked the Secretary about a CBS News investigation that found a 259 percent increase in narcotics that are prescribed by VA over the past decade. At the time of the September 19, 2013 report, Shinseki had declined a CBS News interview request. This is what he said:

Since our investigation aired, VA officials have told Congress that 40,000 fewer veterans are being prescribed narcotic painkillers, and the VA is working to expand alternative forms of pain management throughout the healthcare system.

Shinseki pointed to a regional VA network that reduced narcotics prescriptions by 50 percent as an example of VA's progress. But both VA doctors and patients tell CBS News that this practice has still not reached many of the 1,700 VA medical centers across the country, that the VA is still relying heavily on narcotics to treat pain, and that alternative therapies -- such as physical therapy and acupuncture -- are often not offered or are unavailable. And patients tell CBS News their doctors' visits are often so brief -- five minutes on average -- the time is spent mainly on reviewing and rewriting prescriptions and not on determining and treating the underlying cause of the pain. Doctors say the brief visits are due to understaffing and that they are overwhelmed by their patient loads.

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