Despite unanimous approval, Republican senators threw VA Secretary Robert McDonald under the bus recently for failing to fire Phoenix VA Health Care System Director Sharon Helman after five months of being placed on paid leave aka paid vacation.
Sharon Helman was placed on leave last May when reports services that she oversaw and reportedly endorsed fraudulent practices of staff to benefit personally by illegally inflating performance numbers. Many veterans died and were harmed by the practice that impeded access to timely health care by desperately ill veterans.
At the core of the story, Sens. John McCain, Jeff Flake and Richard Burr are beating the drum to terminate Helman. In response, VA claims it cannot fire Helman because of VA employment laws that supposedly prohibit firing Helman despite the crimes committed under her watch.
As memory serves, McCain’s staffers totally blew off concerns until it became politically advantageous to go after the fraudsters. Prior to CNN hammering on the issue, I do not recall any of the above Republican senators expressing any concern of VA health care wait list frauds. Now, hamming on the wait list scandal is an easy issue to rally behind.
So is this concern over Helman’s extended paid vacation genuine or are these senators playing politics just before the election next month? Did Senator McCain act concerned when families called his office about the fraud perpetrated by Helman’s hospital?
According to Politico:
Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona and Richard Burr of North Carolina, the Senate GOP’s top man on veterans issues, said McDonald has not followed through on cleaning out senior executives such as Helman — even though a new VA law allows the swift dismissal of top officials deemed responsible for mismanagement.
McDonald “personally assured us that he was committed to changing the culture of dysfunction and the chronic lack of accountability at the VA that led to the recent scandal. And yet, as of today, it has been 180 days since Sharon Helman … was placed on paid administrative leave,” the senators said in a statement. “With evidence from the VA [inspector general] report finding that Phoenix VA leadership was aware of unofficial wait lists and access delays, Secretary McDonald has still failed to act. This is unacceptable.”
The trio also knocked McDonald on Tuesday for not answering two letters asking about Helman’s employment status and implementation of the landmark VA reform bill, which passed both chambers of Congress by strong margins after McCain and Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) negotiated a deal with House leaders. That legislation pumped billions in new resources into the VA health care system and let veterans dealing with long delays seek treatment outside the VA infrastructure.
A VA spokesperson responded:
“Unfortunately, some have chosen to be critical of the process to remove senior leaders they themselves have recently written into law. If lawmakers would like a new process, they have the opportunity to pass a new law. Until then, VA will continue to follow the law.”
How is it that any law, now that fraud was essentially proven, allows Sharon Helman to continue to collect a paycheck? Helman has basically been on a paid vacation for five months. How much longer will taxpayers be expected to fund her early retirement?
In all fairness, rumor has it that Helman has a ton of dirt on VA health care employees and has threatened to bring the whole house down should VA pinch her. My best guess is that she is cooperating with investigators, which could be behind some of the firings/early retirement of her colleagues.