More than a year after a waiting-list scandal raised serious questions about veterans’ care nationwide, federal prosecutors announced their first indictment in the case, targeting a manager of a Veterans Affairs medical center in Georgia.
The 50 charges against Cathedral Henderson allege that in February 2014, he ordered staffers at Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center in Augusta to close out some 2,700 unresolved requests for outside appointments by “falsely declaring” they were completed or refused by patients, when in fact the patients were still waiting for care, according to the indictment.
Justice Department officials said they could not comment on whether indictments are pending elsewhere. The Veterans Affairs Department said that the indictment was exclusive to Augusta so far and that no action was pending in Los Angeles.
Concerns over waiting times for care at VA hospitals erupted in April 2014 after whistle-blowers in Phoenix accused administrators of keeping a secret waiting list to hide delays in treatment -- delays that were so long, at least 18 veterans died before being seen. Similar problems were found in facilities across the country, and the chief of the VA stepped down that May.
On Monday, Cosme Lopez, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Phoenix, said he could not say “yes” or “no” to whether indictments are pending there.
Henderson, who is charged with 50 counts of making false statements related to healthcare matters, pleaded not guilty Friday in U.S. District Court. The VA placed him on administrative leave the same day, VA spokeswoman Walinda West said in a statement. She said additional action may be taken depending on the indictment.
Henderson was responsible for managing outside consultations for veterans when the VA could not provide the care, according to the indictment. The indictment alleges he falsified records under pressure from the undersecretary for health at the VA to close unresolved requests for consultations.
Henderson denies all wrongdoing, according to his attorney, Keith B. Johnson.
“My client has always done his job to the best of his ability,” Johnson said. “In essence, he is a soldier and he’s always wanted to help soldiers.… He has had an impeccable working career as a soldier and at the VA since 1992, so we ask everyone to withhold judgment.”
The VA has terminated 1,755 employees and pursued disciplinary action against 187 more since VA Secretary Robert McDonald took over last July after the scandal, West said in a statement.
The VA’s Office of the Inspector General has completed its investigation into 50 of 99 VA facilities identified in an 2014 audit as having problems with scheduling patients, leading so far to disciplinary action at five facilities and continued investigation into 16 to identify what further action is warranted.
In April, a year after the scandal erupted, the Associated Press reported that the number of veterans facing long wait times at VA medical centers had not declined.
Times staff writer Christine Mai-Duc contributed to this report.