The Phoenix VA hospital whistleblower processes her 2014 ordeal in a new book.
Paula Pedene began working as the public information officer at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Hospital in 1994, after serving more than 11 years as a U.S. Navy communications specialist. But in 2014, Pedene became front-page news herself when she helped a doctor there, Sam Foote, expose the bogus bookkeeping directors were using to cover up how long veterans were waiting to receive care.
Today Pedene, 64, works from her Scottsdale home running the nonprofit Honoring America’s Veterans, which puts on the annual Phoenix Veterans Day parade, and promoting her 2022 book on the scandal, A Sacred Duty, co-written with novelist Doug Williams.
After you first reported the cooked books in 2010, your bosses reassigned you from the executive suites to a desk in the library, which soon moved to the basement. It sounds like the Milton subplot in Office Space.
Well, I got to keep my stapler! [laughs] As whistleblowers, we learn that it’s really a slow death for your career. They take away your duties, make you wait for meetings, dress you down in public. It’s this constant harassment.
As it happened, putting you down in the library actually helped you gather more evidence.
Exactly! Had I not been banished to the basement, I wouldn’t have had the ability to put all the pieces together. In the library, I was hearing from veterans every day who were complaining about the waits and delays. So I started writing letters anonymously and sending ’em off to the OIG [Office of Inspector General], but they wouldn’t do anything based on anonymous tips. Finally, Sam said, “I will help you.” So he retired in December 2013, and in January, I set him up with an editorial board at The Arizona Republic and then the staff at the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
That’s when their chairman, Rep. Jeff Miller, testified in a hearing that “there could be as many as 40 veterans whose deaths could be related to delays in care.”
And that’s what blew the scandal wide open. We thought it was just happening at Phoenix. But what we learned was it was happening at 111 of the 156 VA hospitals nationwide. [Three executives were forced out of their jobs, and that September Pedene left the VA with an undisclosed settlement.]
Your story won the 2018 Book Pipeline contest, where the prize includes making connections with film and TV production companies, and I hear there’s already interest in turning your book into a movie. Any picks on who’ll get to play you if it happens?
I’m hoping for Sandra Bullock! [laughs] But, you know, whoever can help us get the story out there. I just want to continue being an advocate for our veterans.
Post-whistleblowing, Pedene has worked to publicize the 2018 passage of the VA Mission Act, aimed to address the patient backlog covered up by the VA’s waitlist fudging. The legislation directs the department to pay other health-care systems to provide care when the VA can’t see patients in a timely manner.
But a 2021 investigation found VA administrators overruling doctors’ judgments to prevent them from sending their patients outside the system, to retain their budgets. “So, there’s still an accountability problem,” Pedene says.
In April 2022, VA secretary Denis McDonough promised improvements in wait time data, which he admitted was still “inconsistent.” In the meantime, a new GOP bill proposes lawmakers be required to get their own health care from the VA, to “ensure members of Congress have a stake in improving the VA health-care system,” according to its sponsor, Ohio Rep. Warren Davidson, an Army veteran.