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VA fires Phoenix medical facility chief, after months of investigation

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WASHINGTON – The Department of Veterans Affairs formally removed Sharon Helman from her position as Phoenix VA healthcare director on Monday for “lack of oversight and misconduct” in the troubled operations at the facility.

Helman had been on paid leave since May 1, after a whistle-blower raised allegations that staff in Phoenix had manipulated records of patient wait times, boosting their own performance evaluations and endangering the health of veterans.

The firing Monday – almost a year after the beginning of the scandal that would eventually envelop the entire agency – followed months of complaints by lawmakers that the VA was dragging its feet in the investigation.

“This is a step in the right direction, but Sharon Helman should have been fired long ago. Period,” Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Flagstaff, said in a statement Monday.

“Firing VA officials who manipulate the system, harm our veterans and violate our nation’s trust should be swift,” said the statement from Kirkpatrick, a member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

The chairman of that committee, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said in a statement Monday that Helman’s firing is a “positive step, but there are still many more VA scandal figures who also must be purged from the department’s payroll.”

The furor began in January when retired VA physician Samuel Foote brought documents to the committee showing that workers at the VA in Phoenix were manipulating patient-scheduling records to make it appear that veterans were getting care in a timely manner.

In reality, patients sometimes waited months for care, but fast wait-times were considered in employee performance reviews and directly affected their bonuses.

Foote’s allegations led to a probe of the Phoenix VA, which eventually sparked an investigation of VA facilities nationwide. The VA ultimately said it found similar problems at facilities across the country. And an inspector general’s report in August confirmed many of the problems at the Phoenix facility.

Helman was put on paid administrative leave May 1, and then-VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned May 31 as problems continued to come to light.

In response, Congress in August passed the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014, a law that gave the VA $17 billion in emergency funding for reform, along with greater authority to fire agency executives.

VA Secretary Robert MacDonald came under fire earlier this month for not using that new personnel authority to clean house. But the agency’s deliberate pace was defended by Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson, who said the VA needed to work carefully on cases like Helman’s in order for its “actions to withstand appeal.”

The case against Helman was apparently strong enough to act Monday, nearly seven months after she was put on leave.

“This decision followed an investigation by the VA Office of Inspector General in which allegations of lack of oversight and other misconduct were substantiated,” the VA said in a statement Monday. MacDonald added that the department “will not tolerate” any more misconduct by its leaders.

American Legion National Commander Michael Helm intends to hold MacDonald to his word.

“We expect to see additional consequences, even criminal charges if they are warranted, for anyone who knowingly misled veterans and denied them access to medical services,” Helm said in a statement Monday.

Helm added that the journey toward accountability is “far from over,” and anyone responsible for the agency scandal must face consequences.

The Phoenix VA is currently being run by Glenn Grippen – its third interim director this year – but the VA said it is working “as quickly as possible” to find a permanent replacement for Helman.

Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Phoenix, said in a statement that a new leader needs to be able to bring increased stability and continuity to the facility. She also pointed out that Helman has been paid more than $90,000 while others have been doing her job.

“This is a completely unacceptable use of taxpayer dollars that should instead go to providing care for veterans,” she said.