Bonus Returned to Ex-Phoenix VA Hospital Boss Ahead of Obama's Visit

This undated handout photo provided by The Veterans Affairs Department, shows Sharon Helman, director of the Phoenix VA Health Care System. (AP Photo/Veterans Affairs Department)
This undated handout photo provided by The Veterans Affairs Department, shows Sharon Helman, director of the Phoenix VA Health Care System. (AP Photo/Veterans Affairs Department)

President Obama and Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald were in Phoenix, Arizona, on Friday to announce a new advisory panel for the VA and detail the progress made at Phoenix's VA regional hospital since it emerged a year ago as ground zero for the patient wait-times scandal.

But even as they announce plans and progress there comes word that the woman at the center of the Phoenix storm – dismissed hospital director Sharon Helman – has won at least a temporary battle to recover a $9,000 bonus the VA stripped from her in the scandal.

Judge Alan R. Caramella, a civil service administrative law judge, ruled that the government must "return the money it has offset from Ms. Helman's salary until I issue a final decision," The Washington Examiner reported Friday.

VA spokeswoman Walinda West said VA officials have not been able to confirm the information in the Examiner article.

Helman managed the Phoenix VA hospital when it was discovered it maintained a secret waiting list of veterans wanting an appointment. Whistleblowers told CNN last April that up to 40 veterans on the list died before getting seen.

Helman was placed on paid administrative leave for about six months before being fired. She fought the termination but it was upheld. However, instead of being fired for the waiting list problems, she was fired for having accepted gifts from a representative of a company wanting to do business with the hospital.

Meantime, she also sought to recover a $9,000 performance bonus given to her before the scandal broke, which the VA has since recovered by docking her pay. Helman may still not get to keep the bonus, but Caramella's ruling will put the money back in her hands until a final decision.

President Obama and McDonald are in Phoenix to announce the creation of a new advisory panel to help VA to improve customer service, patient outcomes and long-term reforms.

The announcement will be made during a roundtable discussion with veterans, VA employees, members of Congress and others at the VA Medical Center in Phoenix.

McDonald will provide details of the panel during the roundtable, but the White House official said its members have experience in customer service, large-scale organizational change and veterans' advocacy. They include business leaders, members of veterans' service organizations, health sciences professionals and academics.

For McDonald's part, he is expected to review improvement made to the running of the Phoenix medical center over the past year, including "accelerating" care to veterans who were on the secret wait list. Between last May and January 31, more than 30,000 veterans waiting for an appointment at Phoenix were authorized to get care at non-VA hospitals and clinics.

The hospital itself experienced a 19 percent increase in the number of veterans it saw during that same period, to more than 476,000.

Between October and January, 94 percent of appointments at the Phoenix facility were within 30 days of the veteran's preferred date, according to the VA.

VA leaders also sent additional personnel and three mobile medical units to the hospital last May to expand staffing until outstanding vacancies could be filled.

Since last June it hired 305 new full-time employees and will hire another 500 to meet demand over the next five years. It is increasing primary care staffing of doctors, nurses and clerks by 53 additional full-time employees.

Also, in connection with the Veterans Choice program, the VA has hired 50 additional full-time workers and is authorized to hire another 30.

It was nearly one year ago that whistleblowers at the Phoenix VA hospital claimed that nearly 40 veterans died while awaiting care. The veterans' names were kept on a secret wait list in order to conceal the actual scope of delayed care and make it appear the hospital was meeting standards.

Subsequent investigations found that wait-times manipulation was systemic across VA, occurring even at facilities where managers and executives were pulling down thousands of dollars in bonuses based partly on getting veterans in for appointments in a timely manner.

The VA's Office of Inspector General ultimately concluded that delays to care contributed to the deaths of more than 30 veterans, but stopped short of saying the delays caused the deaths.

The unfolding scandal ultimately forced the resignation of the VA Secretary Eric Shinseki last May, who said subordinates misled him about the seriousness and scope of the department's problems.

McDonald, who previously headed consumer products giant Procter & Gamble, succeeded Shinseki. Lawmakers and veterans organizations have been counting on his experience successfully running P&G translates into the ability to clean up the VA.

-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at bryant.jordan@military.com

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