May 27, 2014

Press Follow-up Fail: CNN Exposed VA Scandal Deaths Six Months Ago

Last week, I noted how CNN reporter Drew Griffin, described by the network’s Jake Tapper as “the reporter who began this whole story with his investigation into the Phoenix VA,” was stunned and frustrated with President Barack Obama’s Wednesday Veterans Administration scandal press conference. Reacting to Obama’s pledge to have VA Secretary Secretary Eric Shinseki investigate the problem and to bring in another person “to conduct a broader review” of the VA, Griffin contended that “this problem is real; it exists; it really doesn’t have to be studied.”

I have since learned that there is an especially strong reason for Griffin’s exasperation. The CNN reporter was on the VA’s case long before his work in Phoenix, doing work which the rest of the press ignored.

In November of last year, Griffin and two of his colleagues, in the course of looking at the horrific situation at one VA hospital in South Carolina, revealed that the problem was far from isolated. Griffin’s disturbing report, which aired on November 20 on Anderson Cooper 360 and likely other CNN shows, should have caused a swarm of press coverage and led to demands for answers from the White House — and didn’t. Video, several quotes from it, and excerpts from the posted CNN story follow (bolds are mine):

Select quotes from the video itself:

WOLF BLITZER (introducing the segment): Here’s the headline — Some of America’s military veterans, men and women we all owe a tremendous debt to, are dying. They’re dying needlessly because of long waits and delayed care at some U.S. veterans hospitals. At one hospital, patients died for one reason: They were made to wait too long to get a simple colonoscopy that would have detected cancer and saved lives. And what’s worse, the VA knows all about its problems and has done almost nothing — nothing to prevent some veterans from dying.

DREW GRIFFIN: Sources tell CNN the number of vets dead or dying of cancer because they had to wait too long for diagnosis or treatment (at Dorn VA Medical Center in South Carolina) could be more than 20.

… Documents obtained by CNN show the hospital knew that growing waiting lists and delays in care were having deadly consequences. Medical investigators reviewed the cases of 280 gastrointestinal cancer patients at Dorn and found 52 of the cancer cases were associated with a delay in diagnosis and treatment.

Most troubling of all is the problem here was identified. More money was given to fix the problem. And what happened. The waiting list grew. … Of the $1 million Congress specifically gave to Dorn to pay for care for vets on a waiting list, only a third was used for its intended purpose. Documents exclusive to CNN show at that same time the waiting list kept growing — in just five months from 2,500 patients to a backlog of 3,800, (with) some patients waiting eight months for appointments.

And it’s not just delayed colonoscopies. And it’s not just South Carolina.

I’ll go to the posted CNN story at this point:

CNN has learned from documents and interviews that other VA facilities have been under scrutiny by officials over possible delays in treatment or diagnoses.

At the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center in Augusta, Georgia, the VA said three veterans died as a result of delayed care. Internal documents at that facility showed a waiting list of 4,500 patients.

The VA also acknowledged that it investigated delays at facilities in Atlanta, North Texas and Jackson, Mississippi. The VA said no “adverse outcomes” because of delays were found at the VA centers in Texas and Mississippi.

CNN also has learned that, though little publicized, the problem is not new.

“Long wait times and a weak scheduling policy and process have been persistent problems for the VA, and both the GAO and the VA’s (inspector general) have been reporting on these issues for more than a decade,” said Debra Draper of the Government Accountability Office.

Draper’s office has been reporting to Congress on the delays in care at the VA for years. It is so bad, she said, that she and her staff have found evidence that VA hospitals have tried to cover up wait times, fudge numbers and backdate delayed appointments in an effort to make things appear better than they are.

With all due respect to Ms. Draper, it seems from reviewing the GAO’s December 2012 report that her audit team either didn’t grasp or chose to ignore what should have been an obvious implication of the growing waiting lists and the manipulation they found — namely that these problems were harming veterans’ health, endangering many of their lives, and cutting some of those lives short. I may have missed it in wading through the dense bureaucratic language, but I found no indication in the 51-page report that Draper & Co. were sufficiently alarmed by what they found.

People who manipulate waiting lists and falsify records to make themselves look good, and in at least some instances to receive undeserved bonuses, aren’t playing a parlor game. They’re playing with people’s lives. Such manipulation and falsification, if shown to have caused someone to die, would seem to be criminally actionable. I can’t come up with a reason why they wouldn’t be.

I understand that GAO reports to Congress. But why wasn’t it specifically reporting that patients’ lives were at a minimum being endangered — and for that matter, why couldn’t anyone in Congress or in the Obama administration figure this out before the death toll began to mount?

As to Griffin’s November 2013 report, what possible excuse is there for the rest of the press to, as would appear to be the case, have almost totally ignored what CNN found? The pressure on the Obama administration should have reached a critical mass then — not six months later. Perhaps it would have if the White House were occupied by anyone other than Barack Obama.

Cross-posted at


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