VA ordered to repay bonus to Phoenix VA director

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


By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 13, 2015

WASHINGTON — In another hit to its reform effort, the VA was ordered to repay bonus money this week that it had reclaimed from Sharon Helman, the disgraced former Phoenix health care system director at the center of its nationwide wait-time scandal, according to court documents obtained by Stars and Stripes.

An administrative law judge ruled that the Department of Veterans Affairs must by Tuesday repay Helman $5,624 garnished from her wages while she was on administrative leave and faced termination.

The VA removed Helman in April and attempted to fire her after audits found secret patient wait lists in Phoenix and at facilities around the country used to hide long delays in care. But an appeals judge found it did not have grounds to fire her for hiding delays, and instead backed her firing for taking gifts including Beyonce tickets and a trip to Disneyland.

The garnishing of Helman’s wages to recoup the bonus pay was “premature” because the VA did not provide her a hearing first as required by federal law, Administrative Judge Alan Caramella wrote in the Feb. 25 decision.

The former director was notified in June that the VA was taking back the money, which is paid out to many of the department’s senior executives for good performance, according to the court documents.

That month, Helman told the VA she would request a hearing to dispute the move but the department spent several months directing her elsewhere for the case documents without explanation.

Meanwhile, it took the money from her pay from August to November, despite her official request for an appeal hearing in October, the court found.

The judge’s decision is a blow to VA efforts at accountability for the scandal at key time.

President Barack Obama traveled to the VA in Phoenix on Friday to announce a new advisory panel to lead reform efforts – the president had drawn criticism for not visiting the troubled hospital system last year – and the department is coming up on the one-year anniversary of the wait lists and health care delays being revealed by a whistleblowing doctor.

The VA on Friday declined to comment on the Helman bonus decision but said that it is moving ahead with reform efforts started last summer by Secretary Bob McDonald and is still looking into personnel and conduct at the facilities in Phoenix.

“There is an ongoing investigation by the Office of Accountability Review that is looking into leadership at the medical center,” spokeswoman Walinda West wrote in an email to Stars and Stripes. “Investigations and additional disciplinary actions at Phoenix remain pending.”

The department said it has proposed disciplinary actions “related to data manipulation or patient care” against over 80 employees throughout its nationwide system of hospitals and clinics.

But so far firings for keeping secret wait lists have been elusive, despite a law passed by Congress last summer that streamlined terminations and gave the VA secretary more power to get rid of employees implicated in such wrongdoing. Helman’s dismissal has been the most high-profile proceeding.

“It is important to note that the vast majority of VA’s more than 300,000 employees are committed to serving veterans effectively and well,” West wrote.

Twitter: @Travis_Tritten