In 2014, Drew Griffin, our beloved CNN colleague who passed away this weekend, met the most important source for one of his most groundbreaking stories at a seedy bar in Phoenix.
Pauline DeWinter, a scheduling clerk at a Veterans Affairs hospital in Phoenix, chose the place because it was away on business.
She didn’t want anyone to see her in a VA hospital with Drew and his producer Scott Bronstein, and she put two and two together that she was his source for a story that was rocking the Obama administration.
Phoenix VA hospital officials have been keeping a secret list to hide a backlog of patients waiting for care, some for up to nine months.
At the time, the VA set a goal to see patients within 14 days. The Department of Veterans Affairs even paid bonuses to senior employees whose facilities saw veterans in a timely manner.
De Winter, Drew, and Bronstein meet several times as she provides background information, and her identity is protected in his stories. Eventually, Drew tried to convince her to sign up for the recording and sit down for an on-camera interview as an undeniable whistleblower.
“He was very patient and understanding,” she said, but she was still reluctant to go public.
After one meeting, I went home and prayed. Then she changed her mind.
The next day, Drew interviews DeWenter on camera.
“What happened to these people?” he asked her.
She replied, “They went to the desk drawer.”
Those people were American veterans, on that secret list that hid the backlog of patients at the Phoenix VA hospital.
In some cases, they died with their names still on that list, still in that drawer, before they were ever seen for an appointment with their primary care physician or for an ultrasound.
“[Drew] He told me, “After this interview airs, your life will never be the same.” “It can either be good, or it can be bad, but it will never be the same,” DeWinter said. “He was right.”
It was hard for a while — she was still working at the hospital, after all, which is where the story was opening up so wide. But eventually new management came along and the environment completely changed, DeWenter said.
By the time Drew and his team had spent more than two years reporting on what became known simply as the “VA scandal,” they had persuaded the director of the Phoenix VA hospital, Sharon Hellman, (before firing her) to sit down for an interview, but not before Drew followed suit, a phrase on a microphone in his hand, trying to get a comment in the hospital parking lot as she speeded in her blue Mercedes-Benz.
Their reporting ultimately forced then-Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki to resign, prompting federal legislation and reform of the way Virginia hospitals identify patients.
Finally, President Barack Obama personally visited the Phoenix VA hospital, acknowledging that there were “significant problems” that had been uncovered at the VA, and promising to make sure the department would work with veterans.
Over the course of his career, Drew has won numerous awards with his team of CNN investigative producers, but he hasn’t been one to bask in the ballroom spotlight at fancy dinner parties.
He usually stays at home.
For Drew, the greatest rewards were the changes made by his reports, and the errors he discovered and corrected.
“He loved ordinary people who were hurt somewhere and he wanted to give them courage to say it wasn’t right,” said Bronstein, a senior investigative producer at CNN.
In 2015, there was no escaping the awards ceremony. Peabody. Edward R. Moro. A huge honor, but the thing Drew was most interested in was the Fourth State Award from The American Legion – from the veteran community itself.
In a country where only a small minority of the population has served in the military, the honor was an acknowledgment that Drew’s reporting stands out for challenging civilian views of how the United States government should carry out its duty to care for veterans.
He revealed that the huge bureaucracy that is a victim assistance agency, when unmonitored and unaccountable, cannot be trusted to live up to its simple covenant with service members: You serve your country and we will provide the benefits you have earned.
“It was a break for a new generation of Americans about how they view the Department of Veterans Affairs,” said veterans Paul Rickhoff, who founded the nonprofit organization American Veterans in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Until those stories started coming out, most Americans trusted the VA, unnecessarily. So it was important to expose dysfunction that, at worst, could cost people their lives.”
The Department of Veterans Affairs still faces significant challenges providing care for its 9 million registered veterans, but Drew’s reporting exposed rot inside a bureaucracy whose mission is vital to our nation’s health.
What strikes me is how little the whole story is and the perseverance it requires.
In 2013, long before the revelations were revealed in Phoenix, Drew was pushing his team to go after a tip in South Carolina about delayed care for veterans at Columbia’s William Jennings Bryan Dorn Hospital in Virginia.
“We didn’t know how big it was,” Bronstein recalled, but their investigation quickly expanded, bolstered by internal documents with the help of Veterans Affairs that they obtained.
South Carolina was no anomaly. Veterans have been dying while waiting months and months for primary care in Georgia, Texas, Mississippi, and Colorado, too.
As he pressed, Drew faced stiff opposition from management.
“We really got in the way of VA,” recalls Nellie Black, a senior CNN investigative producer who also produced the stories. “They often told us we were wrong.”
“We were waved out of the story,” said Patricia DiCarlo, who now serves as the investigative unit’s executive producer, describing how department officials tried to defraud the investigative team by calling a CNN executive. “They were making the transition into management.”
But Drew kept pushing. He was, as always, undeterred.
Drew’s journalism knack was that he showed us who was choking on bureaucratic red tape. And those in power were forced to see it, too.
As he said when he, kindly but perhaps reluctantly, accepted the Peabody in 2015, “Our goal with this report was not only to shed light on this problem, we wanted to influence change, to hold these politicians and bureaucrats accountable. We call it keeping them honest.”
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