VA Healthcare Update

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The former head of the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Hospital, Sharon Helman, is suing to get her job back. Dennis Wagner, who has covered the story for the Arizona Republic, will tell us about that and other developments in the ongoing controversy.

TED SIMONS: Coming up next on "Arizona Horizon," a V.A. health care update as the head of the Phoenix V.A. Hospital fights to get her job back. We'll hear about an iconic Phoenix restaurant. And Howard Seftel is retiring after years as the "The Arizona Republic's" restaurant critic. Those stories next on "Arizona Horizon."

"Arizona Horizon" is made possible by contributions from the Friends of Eight, members of your Arizona PBS station. Thank you.

Good evening, and welcome to "Arizona Horizon," I'm Ted Simons. The Arizona Board of Regents today approved in-state tuition for undocumented students granted deferred deportation by President Obama. An Arizona law passed in 2006 bars in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants. But two days ago an Arizona Superior court judge ruled so-called Dreamers are allowed to pay in-state tuition because they have legal status. The move will save Dreamer students about $14,000 a year in tuition.

TED SIMONS: The former head of the Phoenix veterans affairs hospital is suing to get her job back. For more on that and other developments in the ongoing V.A. healthcare system controversy, we welcome "The Arizona Republic's" Dennis Wagner who broke this story. Good to have you back.

DENNIS WAGNER: Thank you very much.

TED SIMONS: It never seems to end, does it?

DENNIS WAGNER: No, it's endless.

TED SIMON: Let's talk about Sharon Hillman. First of all, who is Sharon Hillman?

DENNIS WAGNER: Sharon Hillman is the former director of the Phoenix health care system, it's the network that covered most of Arizona, included Phoenix Hospital and satellite facilities in Central Phoenix and pretty much that's it.

TED SIMONS: And she was fired.

DENNIS WAGNER: She was fired, yes, she was fired based on three allegations against her. One of them had to do with manipulation of wait times, the data regarding how soon veterans were able to get to appointments. Another of the allegations had to do with whistle-blower retaliation. Then the third had to do with findings that she had accepted gifts from a lobbyist who had been her former boss at the V.A. before he went into private business, and that she had failed to report those gifts in financial disclosure forms.

TED SIMONS: It almost seemed like the inappropriate gifts superseded some of the other allegations. Did I read that right?

DENNIS WAGNER: It did supersede them. She was subjected to an investigation, and the investigators found that she was culpable in all three of those areas and that's what she was terminated for. But then she filed an appeal and it went to a judge at the merit system protection board. And he issued a ruling that basically said the investigation of her was all screwed up and based on here say and in some cases they say violated her due process, particularly with regard to the wait times issue and the whistle-blower retaliation. The wait times allegations were the basis of the whole V.A. scandal. Throughout part of the whistle-blower retaliation was thrown out, but the judge said on the issue of gifts she was culpable and therefore I'm upholding her termination.

TED SIMONS: So is that why she is not filing suit? Did she file suit to get her job back?

DENNIS WAGNER: She's filed suit to get her job back. She's got two actions going. They also took away a bonus she received. Because part of the issue was she received a bonus based in part on her performance evaluation, which touted her success in reducing the time that veterans had to wait to get care. They took away her bonus last year and she has filed a personnel action and she's fighting to get that back right now. But the main thing is she's fought through the system to get her job back. And now she's got a civil case alleging that, well, it doesn't clarify what grounds she's using.

TED SIMONS: I was going to ask what grounds she's filing for. She doesn't make it clear?

DENNIS WAGNER: The case filed with the court of appeals right now doesn't specify the basis of her appeal.

TED SIMONS: All right. Now there were two others in the Phoenix V.A. cases that were put on administratively with her, correct?

DENNIS WAGNER: Yes, that's correct.

TED SIMONS: Have they been fired?

DENNIS WAGNER: They were put on leave a year ago May 1st. They have received over $250,000 in pay since then and they're at home, they haven't worked since then. Lance Robinson was the associate director at the hospital right underneath Sharon Hillman. And Brad Curry was the health administration services chief; he oversaw a lot of the scheduling and that kind of stuff. They have been the subject of one and a half investigations or two investigations, depends on how you count investigations. There was an OIG, Office of Inspector General investigation and then following that there have been EEO investigations for various violations. More recently there were investigations called Administrative Investigation Boards. The first one was the one the judge said they screwed up that investigation. So then they have tried to conduct a second one but some of the investigators had biases so they had to stop it and they are still under investigation.

TED SIMONS: What happened to the law? Wasn't it last year in 2014 that was supposed to make it easier to fire some of these V.A. officials?

DENNIS WAGNER: There was a law with a real long name that basically increased funding for the V.A. and brought accountability was the idea of the law in the termination of senior executives. And what has happened is it has apparently been unsuccessful in providing enough leverage to successfully accomplish that. But the problem further is that the investigations weren't completed and to some extent apparently were botched. So now they are having to reinvestigate. So at this point now, members of the House, including Krysten Sinema, have proposed a new V.A. accountability act requiring even more ability to fire if they screw up.

TED SIMONS: This is amazing. I mean this is absolutely amazing that these folks are so entrenched. Now they have to go back and get another law. The V.A. secretary was Robert McDonald?


TED SIMONS: What are his reviews so far?

DENNIS WAGNER: I think he's getting, from talking to members of Congress and veterans service organizations, that kind of thing, I think most of the people I talked to believe he's making an effort. But there have been major missteps. At one point he said they had fired 60 people in connection with the wait time fraud issue. And it turned out they hadn't fired any. That has really hurt his reputation. But generally the impression is he's trying, but he may be suffering from high-level employees who aren't helping him.

TED SIMONS: Last question. What's next in all this?

DENNIS WAGNER: Oh. That would be in the story tomorrow if I knew that. I will tell you, I have a story coming out that goes after this issue of the internecine warfare between V.A. employees and how the combination of corruption, discrimination, bullying, whistle-blower retaliation, all those things are percolating all over the place within V.A. institutions around the country and in Phoenix, too. During the time that Phoenix evolved into the problem that it became, there was a ton of that going on. And it was a major distraction for the people that were supposed to be leading the organization. And so I think what's next is trying to solve the problems that have been identified. So far they haven't been solved as far as I know.

TED SIMONS: Okay. Well, thanks for the update. This is absolutely fascinating. Always great to have you in here, you've done great work on the story.

DENNIS WAGNER: Thank you so much, I appreciate it.

Dennis Wagner:Journalist, Arizona Republic;

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