Three executives of the veterans hospital in Phoenix have been placed on administrative leave amid an investigation into allegations of corruption and unnecessary deaths at the facility, federal officials announced Thursday.
Phoenix VA Health Care System Director Sharon Helman and associate director Lance Robinson would be placed on leave "until further notice," U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki said. The third employee was not identified in a statement Shinseki issued from Washington.
The Phoenix facility has been under fire in recent weeks over allegations that up to 40 patients may have died because of delays in care and that the hospital kept a secret list of patients waiting for appointments to hide the treatment delays.
Earlier Thursday, before the announcement that she would be placed on leave, Helman and the hospital's chief of staff denied any knowledge of a secret list and said they had found no evidence of patient deaths due to delayed care.
"We take those allegations very seriously," Helman told The Associated Press Thursday morning, noting she welcomed an independent review by the VA Office of Inspector General. Helman's office declined to comment after the announcement Thursday afternoon.
The claims are the latest to come to light as VA hospitals around the country struggle to handle the huge volume of patients who need medical attention, including aging vets from World War II, Korea and Vietnam and a newer influx from wars over the last decade. In the past year, VA facilities in South Carolina, Florida, Georgia and Washington state have been linked to delays in patient care or poor oversight.
Shinseki said the move to put the Phoenix officials on leave was requested by the inspector general's office, which has sent investigators to the facility.
"We believe it is important to allow an independent, objective review to proceed," Shinseki said. "These allegations, if true, are absolutely unacceptable and if the Inspector General's investigation substantiates these claims, swift and appropriate action will be taken."
Helman said before the announcement that she takes her job very seriously and is personally offended by the claims of misconduct.
"I have given over 20 years of service to this mission. I am proud to lead this hospital," Helman said. "I have never wavered from the ethical standards that I have held my entire career, and I will continue to give these veterans what they deserve, which is the best health care."
On Tuesday, three Arizona congressmen called for Helman to step down amid allegations of gross mismanagement and neglect at the facility.
Republican Reps. David Schweikert, Matt Salmon and Trent Franks also sent a letter to Shinseki, asking him to remove Helman and her leadership team.
Salmon said Thursday that the VA chief made the right decision.
"Hopefully, this is the first step in rebuilding the trust and restoring the confidence that our Arizona veterans have lost in our VA system," the congressman said in a statement.
But the nation's head of veteran health services told a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing Wednesday in Washington that a preliminary review found nothing to support the allegations leveled against the Phoenix hospital system and its leadership.
"To date, we have found no evidence of a secret list, and we have found no patients who have died because they have been on a wait list," said Robert Petzel, undersecretary for health at the VA's Veterans Health Administration.
Dr. Samuel Foote, who had worked for the Phoenix VA for more than 20 years before retiring in December, brought the allegations to light and says supervisors ignored his complaints. He accused Arizona VA leaders of collecting bonuses for reducing patient wait times, but he said the purported successes resulted from data manipulation rather than improved service for veterans, and that up to 40 patients died while awaiting care.