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Doctor: Phoenix VA ignores mandate to prioritize Iraq, Afghanistan vets

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By Scott Bronstein, Drew Griffin and Chelsea J. Carter

PHOENIX (CNN) -- Some veterans injured in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan are being made to wait for months in the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care System despite a national mandate they be given priority access to medical care, a VA doctor told CNN.

Dr. Katherine Mitchell, medical director of the Phoenix VA's post-deployment clinic, outlined the allegations in a report that aired Wednesday night on CNN's "AC 360°."

She accused the Phoenix VA -- up until at least three weeks ago -- of not following a mandate that the highest priority be given to new or injured veterans for scheduling appointments.

Wait lists in Phoenix for veterans injured in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan can be "six months, nine months or longer," Mitchell said.

"People that are 100% service-connected that are polytrauma were waiting anywhere from six to 10 months to get into a new appointment when I found out about 'em," she said.

"We're talking about people that were injured by being blown up by IEDs. We're talking about people who had a mental breakdown and have severe PTSD and ...are having trouble functioning."

Mitchell told CNN that in some instances because of those wait times, case managers in her clinic and patient advocates ask: "This guy can't wait. Can you see him?"

The doctor said she reported the alleged practice to the VA's Office of the Inspector General.

The VA did not directly respond to Mitchell's allegations, referring CNN instead to the testimony of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki before a Senate committee looking into the allegations: "It is important to allow OIG's independent and objective review to proceed until completion, and OIG has advised VA against providing information that could potentially compromise their ongoing review."

Mitchell's claims are the latest in a rapidly unfolding scandal amid allegations of scheduling tricks and secret lists to hide monthslong waits for care. These accusations have mushroomed since CNN first reported the problem in November in an investigation examining several VA hospitals.

The most disturbing problems emerged at the Phoenix VA, with sources revealing details of a secret waiting list. According to the sources, at least 40 American veterans died while waiting for care at the VA there. The allegations have been followed by news of investigations at more than two dozen facilities across the nation.

The problem, according to Mitchell, has to do with the VA not having enough medical providers to care for veterans.

There are a few reasons for this, she said: low pay, lack of qualified professionals applying to work at the VA and a slow hiring process.

"As a result, you've got a lot of patients and not enough providers," she said. "It's not just Phoenix VA. It's across the country, which is why everyone is hiding a backlog."

Mitchell's allegations came the same day President Barack Obama vowed to hold accountable anyone who manipulated or falsified records at VA facilities. He also said he was sending his deputy chief of staff, Rob Nabors, to visit the Phoenix facility and interview the VA office's interim director.

Mitchell said she has not dealt with a veteran patient who subsequently died, but she said she was aware of a disturbing trend of suicides.

"These guys who committed suicide, who were successful suicide completions, would have benefited from more intense mental health treatment," she said. "And those appointments weren't available."

CNN's Drew Griffin and Scott Bronstein reported from Phoenix, and CNN's Chelsea J. Carter wrote and reported from Atlanta. CNN's Nelli Black contributed to this report.

The-CNN-Wire

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