PHOENIX (KSAZ) - According to whistleblowers at the Phoenix Veterans Administration hospital, not much has improved since the secret waiting list scandal broke two years ago.
Employees are still manipulating patient wait times, veterans continue to die waiting for appointments and now, a new allegation from an insider at the Phoenix V-A: an apparent increase in patient suicides.
Two Phoenix U.S. Army veterans that served decades apart didn't know each other in life, but their stories are connected in death.
29-year-old Luis Mariscal Munoz and 53-year-old Tom Murphy. Both were being treated at the Phoenix V-A hospital in the last two years. Each took a gun and ended their own lives. The ones they leave behind blame the Phoenix V-A for their deaths.
Lisa Mariscal Munoz became a widow at the age of 26 and recalls her husband's words in the note he left for her.
"He just told me he loved me and he was sorry that he couldn't do better for me and he just told me to continue on with my dreams.. which I'm trying to, but it's hard without him," she said while wiping away her tears.
Luis committed suicide earlier this year. He was being treated at the Phoenix V-A for what his wife thought was anxiety. After he died, she requested his records and was shocked to discover Luis was under the care of mental health professionals and his first suicide risk assessment was high, yet Luis was never admitted into the hospital for a psychiatric evaluation, which is standard protocol for many providers.
"I wanted to storm back in there and let the doctors know who I am and that they made a mistake and that they failed someone and they failed a whole family," said Lisa.
Luis was given medication and sent home. Two months after his first mental health visit, he drove to an isolated area and shot himself.
"He could've been admitted to be monitored to make sure the meds are working before.. just sending him home on the medication.. they could've warned family members," said Lisa.
53-year-old Thomas Murphy shot and killed himself in 2015 -- his blood spilling on the Phoenix V-A grounds. He left a note, which read in part, "Thanks for nothing V-A."
"I think the V-A should've seen that here was a man who was extremely depressed. Here was a man who was in a lot of pain and they just didn't see and give him the help he needed," said Murphy's friend, Jeff Haymes.
Murphy served as a television production specialist for the U.S. Army. He moved to Phoenix in the 1980s and worked as a freelance cameraman.
In the note he left behind, Murphy wrote of the physical pain he had been suffering for years, how it was hard for him to be on his feet and how the V-A told him they would be taking away his painkillers.
"He told them that he needed pain meds and they said there's a lot of people abusing the system right now and using pain meds and we need to cut you back on them," said Haymes. "He was a cameraman and you have to stand for long periods of time when you're a cameraman, either with the camera on your shoulder or behind a tripod and Tom couldn't do either."
A Phoenix V-A whistleblower says nearly four dozen veterans being treated at the Phoenix V-A ultimately ended their own suffering.
"The Phoenix V-A probably in the last nine months we've had 45 vets commit suicide," said Kuauhtemoc Rodriguez, Chief of Specialty Care Clinics. "They need help and they're crying out for help and the Department of Veterans Affairs is not providing it."
Rodriguez, an Iraq war veteran, was hired three years ago as a manager at the Phoenix V-A hospital. He oversees more than 80 employees. Last year, he reported issues to Congressional investigators.
"Since I've been keeping track and reporting this, I would say close to 2,000 appointments and follow-up appointments this year that I know of personally, have been deleted," he said.
Last month, the Office of the Inspector General investigated his claims and found that some of his claims were indeed true. The Phoenix V-A still can't get veterans timely appointments, more than 200 patients died while waiting for specialty consultation appointments. As for whether those appointments were deleted maliciously, the report claims confusion and conflict among scheduling procedures were to blame.
"Every day, it's pandemonium, it's reactionary. Every single day we have providers that are doing double duty, we have nurses that are doing double duty, we have schedulers working 20 to 30 hours a week in overtime because we don't have enough schedulers. Some of my staff are so overloaded with work they're feeling like their health is failing them because they're so stressed," said Rodriguez.
Luis was not only a veteran, he was also a lab technician at the Phoenix V-A. He would tell his wife what it was like to work there.
"He talked about how a lot of the employees were overworked," said Lisa. "Long waits, staff don't care, they tell you to sit down and you're just a number to them... People weren't taking responsibility for their actions. He told me about it all the time, not just his department, but other departments where it was like it's okay, they've been here for 20 years, so we'll let that slide."
"It's really daunting that two years after the original scandal, things have not changed," said Rodriguez. "Yes, they've improved, but they've improved from 400 days to 90 to 120 days. I wouldn't call that a dramatic improvement."
Since the Phoenix V-A director in charge at the height of the wait list scandal was fired, the hospital has gone through about a half dozen directors n the last few years. The newest, Rima Ann Nelson, was appointed a couple months ago after the previous director suddenly retired for medical reasons. Nelson's pick sparked some controversy because of a scandal that broke out at the last V-A hospital she oversaw.
"That whole culture is still happening.. corruption and not wanting to be accountable and sweep things under the rug," said Nelson.
How do you address that?
"Like I said, the culture of safety, equality and access is the one we're focusing on, so in order to get there, I tell employees please come forward and bring these issues to our attention, which they are doing," replied Nelson.
Nelson has not laid out a plan for any sweeping changes any time soon. It's too early to tell whether she will do more or less than her predecessors in addressing the corruption and wait time issues and the alarming rate of suicides at the Phoenix V-A.
"Whenever a veteran commits suicide, that is a very tragic event. That is one we obviously want to avoid and do everything we can to support the veteran and their family," said Nelson.
It's too late for Luis Mariscal Munoz and Tom Murphy -- and their loved ones wonder if the Phoenix V-A system can be fixed.
"The V-A really needs to get their act together and they need to look at people on a case by case basis and not look at people as a whole... not a bottom line," said Haymes.
"I had lots of anger. I still do have a lot of anger. It's just not fair not when you have resources there," said Lisa. "You have to do something. These people gave their lives for us, put their lives at risk for us. We owe them this help."