Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki on Thursday announced he has placed on administrative leave officials linked to the Phoenix VA Medical Center, now under investigation for maintaining an allegedly secret list of veterans waiting for doctors' appointments.
According to a doctor recently retired from the Phoenix facility, 40 veterans died while on the list.
"We take these allegations very seriously," Shinseki said in a statement announcing the actions against Phoenix VA hospital Director Sharon Helman, Associate Director Lance Robinson and an unnamed third employee. The statement offered no explanation for not identifying the third official.
Shinseki said he took the action at the request of the VA's Office of the Inspector General, which is conducting an investigation of the allegations.
The action also came a day after the head of the Veterans Health Administration told lawmakers the department has found no evidence, to date, that the Phoenix hospital maintained a secret list. Dr. Robert Petzel's statement was echoed in Phoenix by Helman in an interview with CNN.
CNN reported that three Arizona congressman are calling on Helman to resign.Earlier on Thursday the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee put Shinseki on notice that he was ready to subpoena any and all documents related to the Phoenix hospital's appointments scheduling system.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., was already looking into the list -- allegedly maintained so that an official waiting list appeared to meet VA performance standards -- when CNN reported on the list and deaths on April 23.
Miller told VA officials in an April 9 hearing that he had information that the Phoenix hospital was keeping two appointment schedules and that 40 veterans on the secret list may have died waiting to be seen by a doctor.
Immediately after the hearing Miller told the VA he wanted documents related to appointment scheduling at the Phoenix hospital preserved for committee review. The VA issued the required order to Phoenix eight days later, a delay that prompted a frustrated Miller on Thursday to issue a warning to Shinseki.
Unless the secretary explains why it took six days to issue the preservation order, Miller said he will subpoena the documents.
Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, said the committee will hold hearings on the allegations as soon as the VA Inspector General completes its investigation.
Shinseki, in his statement Thursday, said it's important to let the independent review proceed.
"These allegations, if true, are absolutely unacceptable and if the Inspector General's investigation substantiates these claims, swift and appropriate action will be taken," he said.
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