VA says it will remove three top officials of troubled Phoenix hospital

The Department of Veterans Affairs said it was issuing “notices of proposed removal” to three top officials at the Phoenix VA hospital, two years after problems there were first uncovered. The delay has angered elected officials. (Photo by Chad Garland/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – The Department of Veterans Affairs said Tuesday that it has issued “notices of proposed removal” to three top executives at the Phoenix health care system – two years after problems there were first reported.

The VA said notices went to the facility’s Associate Director Lance Robinson, to Chief of Health Administration Service Brad Curry and to Dr. Darren Deering, the hospital’s chief of staff.

“It is vitally important to veterans in Phoenix and across the nation to understand that we will take appropriate accountability action as warranted by the evidence,” VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson said in a statement from the agency.

The Phoenix system came under fire in early 2014 when it was revealed that employees there had doctored patient records to make it appear as if veterans were getting treatment sooner than they did – if at all. That began a probe that uncovered problems at VA facilities across the nation, ultimately leading to the resignation of then-Secretary Eric Shinseki.

Gibson said in his statement that he was “disappointed it took as long as it did” to remove the officials, but that the agency first had to review “a massive amount of evidence” in the case.

Elected officials, who have been demanding action for months, echoed Gibson’s concern at the delay but were quick to support the dismissals.

“The horrific Phoenix VA scandal demanded action and accountability, but a full two years later, neither has happened swiftly or thoroughly,” Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Flagstaff, said in a statement.

“Leaders who have failed our veterans should be removed, but that’s not enough,” her statement said. “When every veteran has access to the timely, quality care he or she has earned, that’s when we will know it is fixed.”

Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, said in an email that he welcomed what he called a “long overdue action” by VA administrators.

“It unfortunately took nearly two years for the VA to make this appropriate decision, despite the enactment of major reform legislation the empowers the agency to more easily fire wrongdoers,” McCain said in a prepared statement.

“The VA clearly has a long way to go to fully utilize all of the tools at its disposal to change the culture of corruption that led to this grave scandal,” his statement said.
Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Phoenix, called the action “long overdue.”

“I welcome the VA’s actions to bring accountability to Phoenix,” Sinema said in a statement released by her office. “Since the crisis broke, we’ve called for the removal of any VA employee who fails to meet the high standards of care our veterans have earned.”

Her statement said she looks forward “to working with Arizona veterans, dedicated VA employees and community providers to ensure Arizona veterans have access to the best possible care.”

Tuesday’s announcement comes two weeks after federal prosecutors announced that former Phoenix VA hospital Director Sharon Helman pleaded guilty to failing to report gifts from a lobbyist over several years while she was running the hospital.

Problems at the agency were first uncovered in 2014, when news reports surfaced that patients at the Phoenix facility faced significant delays in getting care but that agency employees had doctored reports to make the waiting times seem shorter. In some cases, better patient wait times translated to performance bonuses for workers.

The revelations in Phoenix sparked audits that uncovered problems at VA facilities across the nation, forcing Shinseki’s resignation in mid-2014.

– Cronkite News reporters Katie Bieri, Danika Worthington and Marisela Ramirez contributed to this report.