Phoenix VA Health Care System director Sharon Helman and two other VA employees have been placed on leave while the investigation continues into whether 40 veterans died on a "secret waiting list."
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki released a statement indicating that Helman, Phoenix VA associate director Lance Robinson, and a third, unnamed employee would be placed on leave "until further notice."
Shineski's statement says they're being placed on leave "[b]ased on the request of the independent VA Office of Inspector General, in view of the gravity of the allegations and in the interest of the Inspector General's ability to conduct a thorough and timely review of the Phoenix VA Health Care System (PVAHCS) . . . "
Recall that just earlier this week, the national head of the Veterans Health Administration told a Senate committee that the department's own review of allegations surrounding the Phoenix VA system has revealed "no evidence" of a secret waiting list, let alone deaths resulting from that waiting list. However, only the inspector general's investigation will lead to what's considered to be the authoritative report on the issue.
The allegations, made by a retired Phoenix VA doctor, are that the waiting lists were manipulated by VA employees to make them look acceptable to those providing oversight from Washington, but in reality, there was a second waiting list which was so long these veterans supposedly died waiting.
Other employees have been complaining about the apparent problem with the waiting list, but the main source of the claim that 40 veterans died because of it is Dr. Sam Foote, the whistle-blower who sparked this investigation.
Helman has since done just a few media interviews, but has insisted that VA leadership was completely surprised to hear the allegations.
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Meanwhile, people like President Obama and Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs chairman Bernie Sanders have said they're waiting for the inspector general's report to proceed with any action on these allegations. In Sanders' case, his committee will be holding a hearing once the inspector general's report is complete.
"We believe it is important to allow an independent, objective review to proceed," Secretary Shinseki's statement says. "These allegations, if true, are absolutely unacceptable and if the Inspector General's investigation substantiates these claims, swift and appropriate action will be taken. Veterans deserve to have full faith in their VA health care. I appreciate the continued hard work and dedication of our employees and of the community stakeholders we work with every day in our service to Veterans."
The most recent allegations involving the Phoenix VA were published last night by the Arizona Republic. That story details a second whistle-blower who claims someone at the VA was destroying evidence of the manipulated wait times just earlier this week.