Department of Veterans Affairs officials were threatened Thursday with a congressional subpoena if they fail to explain the destruction of a secret list of medical appointments at the Phoenix veterans' hospital and preserve documents for an inspector general's investigation.
Meanwhile, the agency placed three officials from the Phoenix facility on leave.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, said he is prepared to call an emergency committee meeting to subpoena the information formally if he does not get answers by next week.
Whistleblowers say more than 40 patients died because of delays in treatment while in the Phoenix VA Health Care System.
In a letter sent Thursday to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, Miller also rebuked the agency for failing to act quickly to preserve documents related to allegations hospital administrators in Phoenix kept two sets of appointment lists to hide large backlogs of medical appointments.
Miller issued a directive at an April 9 hearing that scheduling records at the Phoenix hospital be preserved.
But VA lawyers did not formally issue the preservation order until April 17, eight days later. That order went to, among others, Dr. Sharon Helman, director of the Phoenix VA Medical Center.
“It is extraordinarily disconcerting that more than a week was allowed to pass before any directive was issued to Dr. Helman and her staff to preserve all potential electronic and paper evidence,” Miller said in his letter to Shinseki.
Helman and Phoenix Associate Director Lance Robinson were both placed on administrative leave Thursday by Shinseki, along with a third Phoenix VA employee who was not identified publicly.
The secretary said the three would be on leave until further notice, "based on the request of the independent VA Office of Inspector General, in view of the gravity of the allegations and in the interest of the Inspector General’s ability to conduct a thorough and timely review."
Miller initially raised questions about the VA keeping two sets of lists in Phoenix at the April 9 hearing, saying at the time that there had been allegations hospital administrators sought to hide actual wait times for medical treatment and that may have contributed to the deaths of about 40 patients.
He also directed Thomas Lynch, VA assistant deputy under secretary for health, who was a witness at the hearing, to ensure the documents were preserved for an investigation by the inspector general.
“I would like to know why it took so long to issue the directive, given my public request at a Congressional hearing, the formal request letter to you, and most importantly, the explosive nature of the allegations regarding the deaths of veterans while waiting for care,” Miller wrote.
Patients in need of a medical appointment were initially put on an unofficial list with long wait-times, according to whistleblowers who have talked to the media.
When the patient’s appointment date was a couple of weeks away, the patient’s name would be entered onto the official list.
That way, it would seem to show patient wait-times were within the agency’s guidelines, typically two weeks to a month.
The original records showing how long patients really had to wait were then destroyed, according to whistleblowers.
The agency has been under pressure to reduce long delays, especially for critical medical tests such as colonoscopies that can detect cancers early.
Delayed medical screenings at VA health facilities nationwide have been linked to the deaths of 23 patients with gastrointestinal cancers, according to an agency fact sheet released in April.
No figures were released on the number of patients who died from other conditions.
VA officials in Phoenix deny they kept a secret wait-list or that delays in care caused patient deaths.
That may be what whistleblowers and the media refer to as the secret list, Lynch said, according to Miller’s letter to Shinseki. Lynch also acknowledged the interim list was destroyed.
“When asked why this document was destroyed, Dr. Lynch responded that there was no legal requirement to preserve it,” Miller wrote.
“Since that briefing, my staff has made multiple attempts with VA Congressional Affairs staff to learn more about this ‘interim list,’ in particular, the date or date range of its destruction. We have received nothing to date,” Miller wrote.