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Phoenix VA officials still on payroll during termination process

By Curt Devine, CNN Investigations
updated 7:45 AM EDT, Thu June 19, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Phoenix VA officials are being paid through termination process, acting secretary says
  • No VA health officials will receive bonuses in 2014 as result of wait-list scandal
  • Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson is adding overtime, appointments to clear backlog

(CNN) -- The director of the embattled Phoenix VA Health Care System remains on the government's payroll more than four weeks after President Barack Obama pledged to hold accountable Veterans Affairs officials involved in fraudulent scheduling practices.

Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson said Director Sharon Helman and two other officials at the Phoenix VA have been "removed" from their positions, but he said the government continues to pay federal employees during the sometimes lengthy termination process.

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Speaking at the Washington, D.C., VA Medical Center on Wednesday, Gibson said actions have been taken to recover the more than $9,000 in bonuses Helman received for 2013, but he did not know if she had paid back the funds yet.

He clarified that no senior Veterans Health Administration officials will receive performance bonuses in 2014 due to the ongoing controversy.

When CNN interviewed Helman in April, she denied any wrongdoing and welcomed an investigation by the VA's Office of Inspector General.

Gibson has toured VA medical centers in three cities in the last week, meeting with hospital staff and outlining his plan to reform the embattled federal health care system that has delayed or failed to provide appointments for more than 120,000 veterans in the past decade, according to an internal VA audit.

"I will use every bit of authority I have at my disposal to hold people accountable who have committed acts of woeful misconduct," Gibson said.

Gibson said he expects to "take action" against officials at a particular VA medical center this week after receiving more information from the VA's Office of Inspector General. He would not specify which facility.

Although he said problems with manipulated wait lists in the VA are systemic, Gibson is not aware of any individuals being terminated outside of Phoenix.

At a news conference on May 21, Obama said, "Anybody found to have manipulated or falsified records at VA facilities has to be held accountable."

Obama named Gibson, the former president and CEO of the USO, the VA's interim secretary after Eric Shinseki resigned May 30.

Responding to CNN's questions about when long wait times will be reduced, Gibson said his top priority is to ensure veterans receive timely, high-quality health care, but he does not know exactly when all wait lists will be reduced.

"I can't stand up here and say, 'By this date we are going to have every veteran seen within less than 30 days.' I want to be able to say it but I just can't do it yet," he said.

Gibson described numerous steps he has directed the VA to take in order to fix the broken system, including adding appointments for veterans on wait lists, increasing funding for staff to work overtime, expanding clinic hours, making room for walk-in appointments and leasing new space for medical care.

He added that he wants to change the VA's culture of discouraging whistle-blowers from speaking out.

"Retaliating against whistle-blowers is against the law," he said. "The last thing in the world you want to do is create an environment where people are afraid or unwilling to raise their hand and say 'I think there is a better way.'"

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