An inside look at hundreds of complaints filed against the Phoenix VA going back years

PHOENIX - In an ABC15 exclusive, we have an inside look at hundreds of complaints lodged against the Phoenix VA Health Care System over the past 13 years.

They give us incredible insight into the VA scandal as investigators continue to look into claims of patient deaths and delayed care.

It took us three months to get this information for you through a public records request.

We've gone through each and every complaint filed through the Office of the Inspector General hotline.

Many of them were employees voicing their concerns.

This wasn't a surprise to one of the whistleblowers we spoke with.

Complaints filed against the Phoenix VA since 2001 take up 162 pages and include allegations of patient deaths, delayed care and staffing shortages.

A lot of them sound familiar to whistleblower Dr. Katherine Mitchell who still works at the Phoenix VA.

“It doesn't surprise me the kind of complaints. What surprises me is how few complaints you have,” Dr. Mitchell said.

Some complaints were made by nurses.

Just this year, one of the complaints filed through U.S. Representative Kyrsten Sinema’s office said nurses "leave work feeling ashamed of the care they can't provide" because they're short staffed.

“They would float nurses away from the emergency department and leave us so incredibly thin as far as nursing coverage that I was afraid something bad would happen to patients,” Dr. Mitchell said.

Not all of the complaints made through the hotline were investigated.

The OIG puts them into three categories, only investigating five percent of complaints called in.

Another complaint from this year claimed the nursing shortage led to several "near misses" with patients.

An anonymous letter to the OIG this year claimed “There are not enough providers, nurses or housekeepers on staff, the nursing levels are so dangerously low that every few hours the house supervisors are moving staff around to plug holes.”

It continues “the staffing is so low that medication errors are made, patient falls are commonplace and other near misses are routine.”

Despite those allegations, Dr. Mitchell says good care can be found at the Phoenix VA.

“I have worked with amazing nurses at the VA. I'm actually proud to have been a VA nurse,” she said.

As she looked through our documents, Dr. Mitchell said too many complaints were anonymous because employees are afraid of retaliation.

That worries her, because it makes it more likely investigators will not look into the claims.

A complaint from this year said personnel opposed to a certain manager are “intimidated, threatened and suffer retribution for non-participation under her management.”

Dr. Mitchell says things need to change at the VA now.

“It can't take years. The significant issues have to do with patient care and safety and facility safety. It can't take years,” she said.

In our public records request, ABC15 asked for copies of all complaints filed against the Phoenix VA since 1990.

But the Office of the Inspector General told us they didn't keep records of all of the paper complaints going back that far.

In response to the nursing shortage, the Phoenix VA said it's actively recruiting more nurses as a part of 100 new hires it is initiating.

Officials said they've set up a new hotline for staff that delivers any problems or complaints straight to the medical director.

VA officials have previously said intimidation against employees won’t be tolerated.

A full report on the OIG’s investigation into the Phoenix VA is expected to be released later this month.

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