PHOENIX — The top executive for the Phoenix VA Health Care System has been directed to repay thousands of dollars in bonus money she received last month as the national controversy erupted over allegations of delayed care and deaths at the veterans medical center here.
In a statement released Wednesday, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced that Secretary Eric Shinseki was rescinding $9,345 in incentive pay to Sharon Helman, the Phoenix system director, after determining that it had been issued "due to an administrative error."
That news came just hours after President Barack Obama delivered a speech on the VA furor and hours before his deputy chief of staff arrived here for briefings.
At the same time, the House passed legislation designed to increase accountability within an agency that serves more than 21 million veterans, including 9.3 million enrolled for health care. Lawmakers passed the bipartisan VA Management Accountability Act by a vote of 390-33. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has introduced the bill in the Senate, but it is not clear whether the Senate will take action.
Shinseki placed Helman, whose annual salary is $169,900, on leave earlier this month amid an inspector general's investigation into whistle-blower allegations that Arizona VA officials falsified data on delays in doctor appointments and that some veterans have died awaiting care.
Helman could not be reached for comment. She previously acknowledged that improved patient access was her "wildly important goal" for the Phoenix VA but said she was unaware of fraudulent record-keeping or patient deaths from delays.
With 12,549 bonuses totaling over $8.7 million at the seven troubled VA facilities during the last three years, executives must answer as to why every veteran didn't receive world-class health care.
Adam Andrzejewski, OpenTheBooks.com
In an interim report to the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs last week, executives from the VA Office of Inspector General testified that their team in Phoenix had linked delayed care to patient harm but had not verified any veteran deaths because of the problem.
Agency critics have knocked the VA's bonus system, saying the incentive money motivates some employees, especially managers, to misrepresent achievements to meet performance goals.
As America's burgeoning veteran population overwhelmed VA medical centers in recent years, prolonged delays for care escalated, and some medical professionals resigned or retired because of working conditions. Administrators responded to appointment backlogs by making wait-time reductions a top priority for incentive pay.
Some hospitals and clinics within the agency developed strategies to "game the system" or "cook the books" by providing false data to meet department objectives, according to whistle-blowers, the Government Accountability Office and internal VA records,
The Office of Inspector General has initiated probes at 26 VA medical facilities nationwide. A spokeswoman Wednesday declined to identify locations except for Phoenix's Carl T. Hayden Medical Center and two other sites already reported publicly — San Antonio, Texas, and Fort Collins, Colo.
OpenTheBooks.com, a website created to monitor federal spending and hold government officials accountable, reported Wednesday on millions of dollars in bonus payments during 2011-13 to employees of seven VA health-care centers linked with allegations of wait-time fraud. The report said Phoenix VA workers received $843,000.
"With 12,549 bonuses totaling over $8.7 million at the seven troubled VA facilities during the last three years, executives must answer as to why every veteran didn't receive world-class health care," said Adam Andrzejewski, the site's founder.
Against that backdrop, Obama aide Rob Nabors flew to Arizona for meetings Thursday with interim Phoenix VA system chief Steve Young and leaders of local veterans' service organizations. Nabors did not schedule any public appearances during his stay, which will focus on patient safety, timely access to care and accountability.
In a surprise address Wednesday, Obama stressed a commitment to identifying and fixing flaws in the VA system once investigations are completed. The president sought to reassure veterans and bolster spirits of dedicated VA employees who may feel sabotaged because of public criticism and controversy.
But he also said he will take action if mismanagement is found.
"We have to let the investigators do their job and get to the bottom of what happened," he said. "Our veterans deserve to know the facts. Their families deserve to know the facts. Once we know the facts, I assure you, if there is misconduct, it will be punished."
Although Obama urged members of Congress not to turn the VA matter into "another political football," Republicans were quick to criticize his handling of the department and the crisis.
"While I am glad that, after many weeks of refusing to acknowledge this widening scandal, President Obama finally saw fit to speak about it today, his remarks are wholly insufficient in addressing the fundamental, systemic problems plaguing our veterans' health-care system," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the president needs to keep his promises to veterans.
"We all share the American people's outrage about the horrors at the VA — outrage the president belatedly echoed today. But what about accountability for treating our veterans like second- and third-rate citizens? For deceiving them while their lives hang in the balance?" Boehner said in a statement.
Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., a member of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, noted that for more than a month after they surfaced, Obama did not publicly address public allegations of secret wait lists and veteran deaths in Phoenix.
Even a key Arizona Democrat, Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, offered critical commentary on Obama's speech: "While the president finally spoke today about this urgent issue, I'm less interested in words and more interested in immediate action to help veterans who need care, and longer-term action in the form of a thorough, in-depth audit of VA medical facilities."Kirkpatrick serves on the House Veterans' Affairs Committee and is ranking member of its Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee.
Veterans are dying. The time for excuses is past. The time for taking action is now.
Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Mich.
The topic also spurred emotional debate Wednesday in the House as the body approved legislation that would give the Veterans Affairs secretary the power to fire or demote VA executives for poor performance.
Supporters said it was needed because the civil-service system makes it difficult for the VA secretary to fire or discipline senior executives. The VA system has about 450 senior executive service officials and employs more than 330,000 people.
"Veterans are dying," said Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Mich. "The time for excuses is past. The time for taking action is now."
But some Democrats predicted the bill will politicize career government workers and allow the VA secretary — a political appointee — to fire them without cause.
Rep. Ed Pastor, D-Ariz., the only member of Arizona's delegation to oppose the bill, said it would do more harm than good and was mainly for members of Congress to try to show they are doing something.
"The reality is that the secretary can remove or transfer somebody now," Pastor said. "I don't want to decimate due process for employees. If the secretary can just remove them at will without cause, what's to say he will remove the right people?"
An administration official said the administration "shares and supports the goals of the bill, ensuring accountability at the VA," but expressed concern that "some provisions could result in significant litigation, which would divert valuable time and resources from VA's accountability efforts and its core mission of delivering quality services to our veterans."
Meanwhile, Obama's remarks gave veterans no reason to believe anything will change at the VA any time soon, said Paul Rieckhoff, chief executive of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
"This controversy is much bigger than Phoenix," he said in a statement. "And our veterans shouldn't have to wait a month for an investigation into one city as disturbing allegations have emerged in at least nine others. These issues are not new."
Dennis Wagner also reports for The Arizona Republic. Contributing: Erin Kelly, Gannett Washington Bureau; and Paul Giblin and Craig Harris, The Arizona Republic.