A 9 On Your Side investigation into a severe staffing crisis at the Southern Arizona VA that's affecting the care of our veterans. A crisis that insiders say comes close to the Phoenix scandal though Southern Arizona VA administrators managed to escape scrutiny after an internal review in 2014. For the first time, staff speaks out to expose a broken system and accused cover-ups.
Garry Riggs loves to fish -- bass -- specifically, but he finds it hard to schedule the time. You see, the Vietnam-era veteran has only a few 'quality' hours a day to work with, instead spending most of his time in bed in constant severe pain from the rods in his neck and back. He pops a percoset pill every three hours, but the dosage is no longer strong enough. "I refuse to take more that what I'm taking now," he said.
He knows he's addicted. Riggs needs to see a primary care doctor, but he's waited several months -- his last appointment in October cancelled because his doctor was leaving. "They said they were getting temps in -- temporary doctors -- and they were having difficulties even getting temps in," said Riggs.
Records KGUN9 obtained of the physicians who separated from the SAVA in the last six years show his last doctor worked for the Southern Arizona VA just over a year. His doctor before that -- four years.
And we uncovered this startling fact: From 2009 to 2015, of the 247 doctors who left the VA, 80 percent left within 5 years. 70 percent of those doctors left in 1 or 2 years. And 33 didn't even make it past six months.
In other words, the data reveals a *high turnover rate of new doctors.
Veteran advocate Ed Wagner, of the Federation of Southern Arizona Veterans
, has been fighting for better care for years and is not at all surprised -- calling the Southern Arizona VA, "Understaffed, broken and they're not treating their doctors like they should or nurses."
One frustrated doctor revealed to KGUN -- anonymously -- for years the doctor worked overtime even without full pay to properly care for patients. Often overloaded, the doctor says the VA cancelled appointments a few days or weeks before patient visits. And when the doctor spoke up to administrators, the doctor was told to "deal with it."
Wagner has piles of emails sent to him by veterans who are frustrated they're stuck in the scheduling system. An anonymous VA scheduler revealed to KGUN9, staff was "told to manipulate the appointments" -- resetting them multiple times because the VA is understaffed.
KGUN9 spoke to several veterans and it's same story -- appointments canceled weeks or days before their visits then rescheduled months later or left in limbo. Why don't the vets come forward? They say they fear retaliation -- they could lose their care.
And it's not just veterans who fear retaliation. "I am a whistleblower. I've been retaliated against," said Lena Cruz, a medical supply technician employed 20 years at the Southern Arizona VA -- recently in the infection control division.
She said over the past five years, management pushed overworked staff to cut corners resulting in, for example, "reusable medical equipment for colonoscopy procedures not being properly decontaminated. "When you have less people, you tend to rush things through and you're not as thorough. It's kind of like washing dishes fast. You're going to leave stuff on the dishes. You're not going to rinse them well," she said.
And she says "testing procedures were falsified". For example, when disposable devices failed quality assurance tests,"staff manipulated log books to reflect the devices had passed the tests."
She said, "Certain rules and regulations -- they weren't being followed because they wanted the quantity of work put out."
Cruz said when she spoke up, she was investigated and removed from her job. She's filed complaints in U.S. District Court, the VA Office of Inspector General and Office of Special Council detailing her concerns of widespread mistreatment and mismanagement.
Veteran advocate Ed Wagner has also complained to VA administrators dating as far back as 2009. Cavazos asked Wagner, "Do you think they were trying to sweep it under the rug?" Wagner replied, "Most definitely. Everybody we've talked to say, we'll look into it, but nothing has ever truly been done."
"Come on, we served our country. At least the VA can take care of us. I don't see it happening," he said.
Meanwhile, the proud veteran longs for a time he can spend a day -- a whole day -- chasing bass out on the lake.
KGUN9 was first to report VA director Jonathan Gardner stepped down January 4th. We requested an interview last Thursday with the acting director Jennifer Gutowski, who was the associate director under Gardner. KGUN9 has yet to hear back.