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Phoenix VA Director Put on Leave After Secret Wait List, Patient Death Allegations

The Phoenix VA Health Care Center

The Phoenix VA Health Care Center // Ross D. Franklin/AP

Phoenix VA Health System director Sharon Helman and two other officials were placed on administrative leave today following allegations that the VA hospital had a secret wait list that prolonged patient care and may have led to the death of 40 veterans.

The accusations come from Dr. Sam Foote, who worked at the VA for 24 years before retiring in December. He then sent letters to government officials, the Arizona Republic and CNN saying that VA administrators had two waiting lists: the fake one they sent to higher-ups that showed patients were seen in a timely fashion in line with VA standards; and the real one where some patients waited over a year for treatment. CNN said Foote's accusations were corroborated by several anonymous sources. A House Committee for Veteran's Affairs hearing earlier this month revealed that 40 vets may have died while waiting for care.

Though CNN said it obtained emails showing that Helman was aware of and defended the secret list, she has denied knowledge of its existence. Yesterday, Robert Petzel, undersecretary for health at the VA's Veterans Health Administration,said in a hearing that no evidence has been found to support Foote's allegations. The VA's chief of staff Dr. Darren Deering told CNN that he believed the accusations were born out of confusion when the Phoenix VA transitioned to a national electronic wait list. Deering did admit that there have been patients who died while on the wait list for an appointment, but said that a connection between those deaths and the wait for care had yet to be made.

Nevertheless, three Arizona congressmen have called for Helman to resign. Instead, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki put her, associate director Lance Robinson and another unnamed official on administrative leave while the Inspector General investigates Foote's claims.

"I think it's the appropriate move," Arizona Sen. John McCain tweeted. "We must get to the truth."

While trying to get comment from Helman during its initial investigation, CNN noted that she parked her "Mercedes sports coupe" in a spot designated for emergency vehicles only at the entrance to the Phoenix VA's ER.

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