U.S. Veterans Affairs officials were under mounting pressure Friday to find an interim head for the troubled VA medical center in Phoenix, a day after three hospital executives were placed on administrative leave amid a wide-reaching scandal brought on by whistle-blowers accusing the hospital of keeping a secret waiting list to hide delays in treatment.
At least 40 veterans died while waiting for service, according to hospital employees and several members of Congress who have looked into the allegations.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki announced Thursday he had placed Phoenix VA Director Sharon Helman, Associate Director Lance Robinson and a third unidentified employee on administrative leave “until further notice.”
“We believe it is important to allow an independent, objective review to proceed,” Shinseki said in a prepared statement. “These allegations, if true, are absolutely unacceptable and if the inspector general’s investigation substantiates these claims, swift and appropriate action will be taken.”
The move came after Arizona Republican congressmen Trent Franks, Matt Salmon and David Schweikert wrote a letter to Shinseki calling for the resignation of Helman and other top leadership at the Phoenix facility.
“As you are aware, recent reports indicate that thousands of veterans were forced to wait on a secret list, some for over 200 days, before receiving proper care,” the letter said. “As a direct result of such practices, the deaths of over forty veterans have come to light. These reports are extremely disturbing, and are a great disservice to our veterans.”
Helman on Friday said she respected Shineski’s decision and was “fully supportive of any decision that ensures we have a thorough review by the Office of the Inspector General.”
Darren Deering, chief of staff at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care System, has been named to take Helman’s place as acting director, according to Phoenix VA spokesman Scott W. McRoberts. Deering will serve for about a week until national Veterans Affairs officials appoint an interim director, McRoberts said.
The announcement about the leadership at the medical center came on the same day that a second VA doctor stepped forward with accusations of misconduct.
Dr. Katherine Mitchell told the Arizona Republic she could no longer keep quiet after she found out that VA hospital officials were shredding documents in the wake of a VA inspector general investigation into the allegations.
Mitchell said she got a call from a fellow employee at the VA hospital Sunday night, telling her that documents were being destroyed that evening. This was after the U.S. House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs ordered the agency to protect documents associated with the allegations.
Mitchell told the newspaper that she went to the medical center and joined her co-worker in preserving documents — including paperwork that they said showed falsified wait times for medical care.
The allegations of misconduct surfaced after CNN aired an interview with Dr. Sam Foote, who retired after more than 20 years with the VA system in Phoenix.
He told the news outlet that the Phoenix VA keeps two lists for patients with appointments, one of them a fake list that he said is passed off as official for Washington officials. The list with the real wait times, he said, is kept secret.
The second list shows long wait times that could last more than a year, Foote told CNN. Up to 1,600 veterans are on that list and at least 40 have languished and died, he said.
The Phoenix VA hospital has had long-standing problems with veterans accessing care, McRoberts acknowledged.
Still, he said, administrators “have taken numerous actions to meet demand, while we continue to serve more veterans and enhance our services.”
“The ability of new and established patients to get more timely care has showed significant improvement in the last two years which is attributable to increased budget, staffing, efficiency and infrastructure,” McRoberts said in a prepared statement. “We continue to make improvements to further reduce wait times for veterans.”
Dr. Robert Petzel, head of health services for the VA, told a U.S. Senate committee Wednesday that a preliminary investigation hadn’t turned up a secret waiting list.
“I need to say that to date we found no evidence of a secret list, and we have found no patients who have died because they have been on a wait list,” Petzel said at a hearing convened by the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “We think it’s very important that the inspector general be allowed to finish their investigation before we rush to judgment as to what has actually happened in Phoenix.”