The Veterans Affairs Department removed the head of its Phoenix hospital facility Monday, more than six months after whistleblowers said veterans were dying while on secret wait-lists there, though veterans groups said the department still has a long way to go to rebuild trust.
Sharon Helman, the director of the Phoenix VA health care system, was officially fired Monday, though she has been on administrative leave since May.
“Lack of oversight and misconduct by VA leaders runs counter to our mission of serving veterans, and VA will not tolerate it,” said Secretary Bob McDonald in a statement. “We depend on VA employees and leaders to put the needs of veterans first and honor VA’s core values.”
Glenn Grippen, a former VA administrator, will continue to lead the Phoenix facility until a permanent director is named. The VA said in a statement that it hoped to name Ms. Helman’s successor “as quickly as possible.”
The Phoenix facility came under fire earlier this year when whistleblowers said at least 40 veterans died while waiting for care. Investigations later found systemic problems of long wait times and poor-quality care at facilities across the country, leading to former Secretary Eric Shinseki’s resignation.
Lawmakers have been pushing the VA to hold those responsible for the scandal accountable and have complained that justice is coming too slow, despite a new law that gives Mr. McDonald more firing power for senior staff.
Mr. McDonald responded that criminal investigations needed to wrap up before he could terminate employees.
Ms. Helman was one of the more public figures that officials pushed the department to fire sooner. VA officials claimed they had to wait for a Justice Department investigation to conclude before firing her, but a leaked email showed a Justice Department official saying the agency took “no position concerning” her termination.
Sen. Richard Burr, North Carolina Republican and ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said Ms. Helman’s firing is “an important but long overdue step in the right direction.”
Veterans service organizations also applauded the firing, but said they are still waiting to see the mass firings one would expect when such widespread problems are discovered.
“This is the type of decisive punitive action that our members have been expecting and waiting for,” said Alex Nicholson, legislative director at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “While Helman’s firing is a good start, we hope to see the many others who violated the VA’s values and endangered veterans’ lives held accountable as well.”
The American Legion called for “additional consequences,” noting that criminal charges may be warranted in some of the cases. “The termination of one director does not end this scandal, but it is a step,” national commander Michael Helm said.
Ms. Helman has received more than $90,000 in pay since being placed on administrative leave, said Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, Arizona Democrat.
“This is a completely unacceptable use of taxpayer dollars that should instead go to providing care for veterans,” she said. “The VA should now install a permanent director, ensuring leadership continuity and increased stability.”
Still, she said permanently getting rid of Ms. Helman is a step forward in the increased accountability lawmakers have been demanding for months.
“The removal of Helman demonstrates that the VA has listened to our concerns and is serious about holding accountable those who put veterans at risk,” Ms. Sinema said.