Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Phoenix VA officials put on leave after denial of secret wait list

By Scott Bronstein, Drew Griffin and Nelli Black, CNN
May 2, 2014 -- Updated 0138 GMT (0938 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki calls for a review
  • NEW: Shinseki announced that the Phoenix VA director has been placed on leave
  • CNN has been investigating allegations of a secret wait list at Phoenix VA
  • In CNN interview, Director Sharon Helman denied existence of such a list

(CNN) -- The director of the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care system and two others have been placed on administrative leave amid claims of a secret waiting list and claims that 40-plus veterans died waiting for care.

These allegations have been exposed in a series of exclusive reports by the CNN Investigations unit.

The announcement Thursday by U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki came a day after officials at the Phoenix VA denied in interviews with CNN the existence of such a list, only to be called liars hours later by the top VA physician who first appeared on CNN and brought the allegations to light.

"We believe it is important to allow an independent, objective review to proceed," Shinseki said in a written 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."

Those placed on leave, according to the statement, are Phoenix VA Director Sharon Helman, Associate Director Lance Robinson and a third employee, who was not identified by name.

VA official: There's no secret list
Deaths tied to VA hospital's secret list
Are we fulfilling our promise to veterans?

Retired VA doctor: There's a secret wait list in Phoenix

Shinseki's office denied repeated requests by CNN over six months to interview the secretary about the allegations.

Sources told CNN the managers at the VA concocted an elaborate scheme to cover up long wait times there. The sources said more than 1,400 veterans were placed on the purported secret list and that documents were shredded to hide the evidence. According to sources, at least 40 U.S veterans died waiting for care at the facility, many of whom were on the list.

These issues raised in CNN's exclusive investigation have quickly drawn attention in Washington.

On Monday, President Barack Obama said he called on Shineski to investigate what has happened in Phoenix.

In recent days, numerous members of Congress have called for hearings on the Phoenix VA, and at least three members of Congress have publicly called for Helman's resignation.

Tears, angry accusations mark hearing on delayed VA care

But in an interview with CNN on Tuesday, Helman and her chief of staff, Dr. Darren Deering, denied any secret effort to cover up or hide wait times.

"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.

Dr. Sam Foote, a 24-year VA physician and clinic director, recently retired and went public with the details of the list, went on the air publicly for the first time with CNN one week ago.

He denounced Helman's claim.

"They started this secret list in February of 2013," Foote said. "At some time, they changed over from paper to electronic, in early summer, maybe approximately June or July. And transferred names over to the electronic waiting list. And she [Helman] was called on an ethics consult evaluation about that -- it's written down, documented in July."

That documentation includes e-mails from July 2013, which were reported by CNN, that show top management, including Helman, were well-aware about the actual wait times, knew about the off-the-books list and even defended its use to her staff.

When directly asked earlier this week about whether evidence of wait times was shredded and whether the secret list existed, Deering stated:

"I think there is some confusion amongst our staff. When we came on as a leadership team in 2012, the practice at that time was that they would schedule new veterans who would were coming in for care way out into the future. Sometimes a year, sometimes 14 months. And that was the appointment that that veteran was given.

"As we started to tackle our challenges of access, we implemented a tool that the VA uses nationally called the electronic wait list. And what that tool is it's an electronic waiting list that allows us to everyday look to see who is waiting for an appointment.

"So what we did is we took those patients that were scheduled way out into the future, and we put them on this national tool that the VA uses so that we could track them. What that did is, rather than having an appointment 14 months out into the future, it put them on this EWL electronic waiting list, so that when we had an appointment that came open, so if a veteran called next week and canceled their appointment, we could pull a veteran off this list and get them into that slot.

"So it actually improved the probability of these veterans getting an appointment sooner. And in that transition time, I think there was some confusion among staff, I think there were some folks who did not understand that, and I think that's where these allegations are coming from."

January: Veterans dying because of health care delays

January: Congress demands answers

November: A dire situation in South Carolina

CNN's David Fitzpatrick and Curt Devine contributed to this story.

Part of complete coverage on
July 1, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
A $23.8 million settlement follows a three-year CNN investigation.
June 24, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Records of dead veterans were changed to hide how many people died waiting for care at the Phoenix VA hospital, a whistle-blower told CNN.
June 22, 2014 -- Updated 1605 GMT (0005 HKT)
Albuquerque police shot a homeless man in the back and killed him, and it was all caught on gruesome detail in a police video.
June 25, 2014 -- Updated 1148 GMT (1948 HKT)
A ship's captain, kidnapped by pirates in 2013, says the money used to pay his ransom went to Boko Haram.
Share your tips or story ideas with CNN's team of investigative reporters and producers. Click on the link or go to cnn.com/investigate.
May 2, 2014 -- Updated 0138 GMT (0938 HKT)
The director of the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care system and two others have been placed on administrative leave amid claims of a secret waiting list for care.
April 24, 2014 -- Updated 0119 GMT (0919 HKT)
At least 40 U.S. veterans died waiting for appointments at the Phoenix VA Health Care system, many of whom were placed on a secret waiting list.
February 4, 2014 -- Updated 0345 GMT (1145 HKT)
Embattled New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie forcefully stood by his account that he only found out about notorious traffic lane closures after they appeared in the media.
December 18, 2013 -- Updated 1944 GMT (0344 HKT)
Records show problems with the Carnival Triumph more than a year before its ill-fated cruise earlier this year.
January 31, 2014 -- Updated 0234 GMT (1034 HKT)
U.S. veterans are dying because of delays in diagnosis and treatment at VA hospitals.
January 23, 2014 -- Updated 1324 GMT (2124 HKT)
The former president of Shell Oil USA didn't candy-coat it: America's political fund-raising system, he said, amounts to legalized extortion.
November 16, 2013 -- Updated 1717 GMT (0117 HKT)
Consumers left angry and confused after the botched Obamacare rollout now have something else to worry about: misleading letters from insurance companies.
January 15, 2014 -- Updated 1838 GMT (0238 HKT)
The president of an advertising firm that lost a $25 million contract said her team was asked to feature New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in ads promoting the Jersey Shore.
October 30, 2013 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
White House officials have pressured insurance industry executives to keep quiet amid mounting criticism over Obamacare's rollout, insurance industry sources told CNN.
Lawmakers set hearings on alleged fraud in America's largest Medicaid system exposed by The Center for Investigative Reporting and CNN.
Felons are supposed to be blocked from running California drug rehab clinics. That didn't stop Alexander Ferdman.
October 17, 2013 -- Updated 2314 GMT (0714 HKT)
So much for a "clean" bill. The measure passed by Congress to fund the government and raise the debt ceiling also contains some goodies and gifts tucked into the 35-page bill.
Victoria Byers told rehab counselors she didn't do drugs. Whistle-blowers say a clinic billed taxpayers to treat her anyway.
CNN's Drew Griffin confronts California health officials about alleged fraud at Medicaid rehab clinics.
Thousands of charities actually spend billions helping marketing executives get rich.
All evidence pointed police to one conclusion: A priest had killed a beautiful 25-year-old schoolteacher.
The same day a documentary featuring a government whistle-blower premiered, the IRS told him he was being audited. Coincidence?
An American father fights for the return of his sons who were illegally taken to Egypt.
A surprise inspection by the Centers for Disease Control has resulted in a failing grade for one of the plushest cruise ships afloat.
A white Mississippi teen faces 27 years in prison after killing a black man walking along a rural highway. The victim's family calls it a hate crime.
Critics say a federal data system that costs $1 million-plus offers very little help to authorities who investigate, identify and track hate crimes.
ADVERTISEMENT