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VA removes Sharon Helman, manager at center of Phoenix health-care scandal

The Carl T. Hayden VA Medical Center is pictured in Phoenix, Arizona June 11, 2014. Federal Bureau of Investigation agents will investigate allegations of wrongdoing at an Arizona office of the Veterans Affairs department that became a political problem for President Barack Obama and forced the VA chief to resign. REUTERS/Samantha Sais

Department of Veterans Affairs officials on Monday said they had “formally removed,” Sharon Helman, the director of the Phoenix VA Health Care System, where the largest nationwide scandal in the agency’s history first came to light this summer.

Helman has been on paid administrative leave for nearly six months, following findings that employees at her hospital lied about health-care wait times for former troops seeking treatment for everything from cancer to post-traumatic stress disorder.

The action comes amid complaints from a growing chorus of Republicans who said the agency was not acting quickly enough to discipline officials responsible for the wrongdoing, despite legislation this summer to expedite the process for firing VA senior executives.

“This removal action underscores VA’s commitment to hold leaders accountable and ensure that Veterans have access to quality and timely care,” the agency said in a short e-mailed statement.

“Lack of oversight and misconduct by VA leaders runs counter to our mission of serving Veterans, and VA will not tolerate it,” said Secretary Robert A. McDonald in the statement.

The nationwide scandal cost the former secretary Eric Shinseki his job. He was replaced by McDonald, who has vowed to refocus care on veterans and end the culture of fudging wait times.

On the eve of Veteran’s Day, McDonald announced what he called the “biggest reorganization in the agency’s history,” and said he is considering disciplinary action for up to 1,000 employees. But he added that he needed to move carefully and make sure their actions “stick,”  so that employees cannot challenge the punishment.

The VA will name a new director in Phoenix as quickly “as possible,” the agency said.  Longtime administrator Glenn Grippen was brought out of retirement and made interim director of the region.

He is the third interim executive to oversee the Phoenix VA Health Care System since it became the center of the controversy, The Arizona Republic reports.

Congress and President Obama approved legislation this summer to expedite the process for firing VA senior executives in response to the scandal, which involved falsification of scheduling data and retaliation against employees who tried to report problems.

Under the new law, an executive who is removed has seven days from the effective date of the removal to file an appeal with the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB). The board must issue a decision within 21 days after the appeal is filed.

House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) criticized the VA for giving senior executives a five-day notice when it plans to remove them. VA officials have defended this timeline, saying they were moving as quickly as the law allowed.

Veterans groups said the news was welcome, but overdue.

“I think this is a step in the right direction and what we have been looking for in terms of concrete action against wrongdoing,” said Alex Nicholson, legislative director with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “We understood bureaucratic processes made it even longer. But it was frustrating to see how slow they had to go in firing someone.”

The action against Helman is “a long-awaited step along the road to restored trust between veterans and their federal health-care system,” American Legion National Commander Michael D. Helm said. “Unfortunately, as we all soon discovered after the story broke last April, this problem was not isolated to Phoenix. It was widespread, and 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. The termination of one director does not end this scandal, but it is a step.”