This April 22 photo shows Sharon Helman, medical center director of Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care Center in Phoenix, who is now on administrative leave, along with two other administrators. Veterans groups are calling for a thorough investigation into delays at the Phoenix VA. (Michael Chow/The Associated Press)
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Veterans groups are calling for a thorough investigation into delays in patient care at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care System that may have resulted in deaths and say new allegations of a cover-up are troubling.
Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki’s decision to place three Phoenix VA hospital officials related to the case on administrative leave, announced Thursday, signals the department’s commitment to investigating the issue, said officials at the American Legion, Disabled American Veterans and Veterans of Foreign Wars.
But a report in the Arizona Republic on Thursday indicating that records were destroyed at the facility last Sunday — days after the House Veterans Affairs Committee called for preservation of all material related to the case — has raised fears that the truth may never be known.
“If it is determined there was willful negligence on the part of the staff that resulted in the deaths of veterans, any ensuing cover-up or destruction of records that could assist in the investigation, employee terminations and criminal charges must be brought against those responsible,” American Legion National Commander Daniel Dellinger said.
“We are waiting to see what the VA inspector general turns up,” said David Autry, deputy national director of communications at Disabled American Veterans. “VA has been taking a lot of heat recently and we certainly hope for full accountability on this issue, as we do with all VA services, from claims to medical services.”
Shinseki placed hospital director Sharon Helman, Associate Director Lance Robinson and another hospital employee on administrative leave while the VA inspector general investigates allegations of delays in care that may have contributed to 40 deaths at the facility.
The step is unprecedented for Shinseki, who did not remove the director of the Pittsburgh VA Medical Center during an IG investigation and criminal probe into the deaths of five veterans related to Legionnaires’ disease contracted at the facility or other medical center directors involved in investigations.
Shinseki said he made the move to allow for an independent objective review in Phoenix.
“These allegations, if true, are absolutely unacceptable and if the inspector general’s investigation substantiates these claims, swift and appropriate action will be taken,” Shinseki said.
House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said the Arizona Republic article alleging that documents already have been destroyed related to the case point to a “despicable situation.”
“Shinseki did the right thing by placing three Phoenix administrators on leave. But by no means does that common-sense step, which should have already been done weeks ago, take VA out of the hot seat,” Miller said.
VA Undersecretary for Health Dr. Robert Petzel told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee on Wednesday that an initial review found no evidence of a “secret list” of patients waiting for appointments or any indication of a cover-up.
Petzel promised a thorough investigation and cautioned against a rush to judgment before the inspector general releases its findings.
According to reports by CNN and the Arizona Republic, VA leaders reported false wait times for patients to higher officials in order to fake progress in getting veterans timely care.
According to the reports, a second, private wait list included thousands of veterans who waited months or years for appointments, with as many as 40 patients dying while waiting for care.
Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Fla., on Thursday sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder calling for a criminal probe into the Phoenix allegations as well as delays in patient care elsewhere.
“Because these cases involve individuals working in their capacity as federal employees, and these incidents have occurred at federal facilities throughout the nation, I urge you to work with the state attorneys general in Arizona and across the country to investigate these preventable deaths thoroughly,” Rooney wrote.
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