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Phoenix VA officials on leave after 'secret list' scandal that let vets die waiting for care

Official: "These allegations, if true, are absolutely unacceptable and if the Inspector General's investigation substantiates these claims, swift and appropriate action will be taken."

By JC Sevcik
Phoenix VA officials on leave after 'secret list' scandal that let vets die waiting for care
Sharon Helman, Director of Phoenix Veterans Affairs Healthcare Systems, has been placed on administrative leave amid allegations that a secret wait list which allowed over 40 vets to die while waiting for care was covered up with falsified records to hide wait times from the federal government. (Phoenix VA Healthcare Systems)

PHOENIX, May 2 (UPI) -- The director and two other officials of the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Healthcare System (PVAHS) have been placed on administrative leave in light of the recently revealed scandal that allowed over forty veterans to die while waiting for medical care and falsified records to hide the lengthy wait times from the federal government.

In an exclusive interview with CNN Investigative, Dr. Same Foote, a veteran doctor just retired after 24 years with the VA system in Phoenix, blew the whistle on PVAHS maintaining two separate records of waiting lists -- one fake list to convince Washington they were providing timely appointments (14-30 days is the expected turnaround standard for timely care required by the VA) and another real but secret list where veterans' wait for an appointment could last over a year.

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On Monday, President Barack Obama called on U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki to investigate. As well, several members of Congress have called for hearings on the matter, at least three representatives publicly calling for PVAHS Director Sharon Helman’s resignation.

On Thursday, Shinski announced in a written statement that Helman, Associate Director Lance Robinson and a third employee, who was not identified by name, have all been placed on administrative leave pending investigation.

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"We believe it is important to allow an independent, objective review to proceed," Shinseki wrote. "These allegations, if true, are absolutely unacceptable and if the Inspector General's investigation substantiates these claims, swift and appropriate action will be taken."

When directly asked whether evidence of wait times was shredded and whether the secret list existed in an interview with CNN Tuesday, Helman and Deering denied the allegations. “We have never instructed our staff to create a secret list, to maintain a secret list, to shred a secret list -- that has never come from our office as far as instruction to our staff," said Deering.

"It's never come from me," added Helman.

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This despite e-mail documentation reported by the network that showed Helman and management were aware of the practice and had defended it to staff.

No stranger to records falsifying scandals, Helman transferred to Phoenix from her previous post as Director of Veterans Affairs in Spokane, Washington after the VA’s Office of Medical Investigations found the number of veteran suicides was being intentionally misrepresented.

Foote estimates the number of veterans still on a “secret list” waiting for care at somewhere between 1,400 and 1,600.

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