Will this ever end?
A federal administrative judge has upheld the dismissal of the director of the Veterans Affairs health care system in Phoenix for accepting more than $13,000 in airline tickets and other gifts from a consultant for the health care industry, for failing to disclose some of the gifts and for placing a high-ranking doctor on administrative leave for providing Senator John McCain with information about patient suicides.
The former director, Sharon Helman, had also been implicated in the falsification of the hospital’s waiting lists for care, a problem at Phoenix and other veterans’ hospitals that roiled the Department of Veterans Affairs this year and led to the resignation of the department’s secretary, Eric K. Shinseki. But the administrative judge, Stephen C. Mish, concluded that the department had not provided sufficient evidence to justify firing Ms. Helman for the manipulation of waiting lists, which concealed delays in providing care to veterans.
Judge Mish also concluded that the department had not proved that Ms. Helman failed to address the bureaucratic problems and personnel shortages that contributed to the large backlog of veterans waiting for primary-care appointments at the facility.
“The press and congressional attention has been on the charges the agency failed to prove,” Judge Mish, chief administrative judge of the Denver field office of the federal Merit Systems Protection Board, said in his 61-page ruling, which was released late Monday. Nevertheless, the judge said he was upholding Ms. Helman’s firing because of “serious financial improprieties” that included accepting airline tickets and an eight-night stay at Disneyland, apparently for her and six family members, from a consultant with clients seeking business with the department.
Revelations about the Phoenix health care system shook the confidence of millions of veterans who use the department’s hospitals and clinics. An investigation by the department’s inspector general found that 1,700 patients in Phoenix had not been placed on proper waiting lists and may never have received medical care, and that the falsification of waiting lists may have led to better performance reviews for the Phoenix hospital’s employees. A top official in the inspector general’s office also testified that delays for care had contributed to some patient deaths.
Ms. Helman appealed her firing last month and in a proceeding before the judge argued that the department had been wrong to base her dismissal partly on a failure to take action or notify her bosses about a backlog of 2,500 primary-care appointments.
After reviewing sworn statements from senior department officials, the judge found that it was “more likely than not (nice shift to VA lingo here!) that at least some senior agency leaders were aware, or should have been, of nationwide problems getting veterans scheduled for timely appointments” and that the Phoenix hospital, “as a part of the nationwide system, also had those problems.”
Judge Mish found that the department had not proved that Ms. Helman failed to take action or notify bosses, and he said it had failed to describe “any particular actions or inactions” constituting misconduct by Ms. Helman related to off-the-books waiting lists.
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The department issued a statement on Tuesday that said officials were “pleased” because the judge’s decision “helps us begin to put the leadership failures at Phoenix behind us.” The department removed Ms. Helman “based on the available evidence,” it added.
But a lawyer for Ms. Helman, Julie Perkins, said the ruling had upset much of the narrative about what happened in Phoenix and raised questions about who was at fault.
“Sharon was not fired for what Congress and the inspector general alleged that she had done with respect to veterans’ care, and if she’s not at fault, I hope people will question where the blame really lies,” Ms. Perkins said. “The decision says, and the evidence shows, that people in V.A.’s central office knew about these problems and did nothing for years.”
The chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, Representative Jeff Miller, Republican of Florida, said on Tuesday that he favored “a detailed investigation into whether V.A. officials in Washington knew about widespread wait time fraud and when they knew it.”
He also suggested that he was concerned by the ruling’s revelation that the department’s inspector general had never interviewed Ms. Helman. (A spokeswoman for the inspector general’s office declined to comment.) Mr. Miller added, “The fact that the ruling did not connect the central figure of V.A.’s wait time scandal to any wait time schemes demonstrates a huge problem with the way this case was handled.”
The ruling suggested that Ms. Helman had at some points been handicapped in the proceeding because she exercised her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Yet the judge was caustic in describing the most serious findings against her, including the appearance of a conflict of interest created by the trip to Disneyland and other gifts.
“Sincerely forgetting about one of the plane rides purchased for her might be understandable in some circumstances, but the notion she actually forgot them all strains credulity,” Judge Mish wrote, adding that Ms. Helman “has little rehabilitative potential.”