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Lawmakers cite Phoenix VA in call for better control of agency, workers

WASHINGTON – Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Phoenix, joined the House Veterans Affairs Committee chairman Thursday to demand greater authority for the Department of Veterans Affairs to fire and discipline employees in the wake of the agency’s “waitlist scandal.”

The VA’s problems began in Phoenix, where it was discovered that employees had doctored patient wait lists to make their own performance look better. Audits subsequently found problems nationwide.

“A year ago this month we learned that veterans in the Phoenix VA were kept on secret waiting lists, waiting months before seeing a doctor and not getting the care they needed,” Sinema said Thursday.

“These revelations were shocking and sickening,” she said at a news conference backed by dozens of vets and veterans advocates “Some veterans died while waiting for care. That’s absolutely unacceptable and frankly its un-American.”

But Sinema and Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., the chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, said that since that time, no employees have been fired for waitlist manipulation, and some have continued to be paid while under investigation.

“Three executives responsible for the tragedies at the Phoenix VA were placed on administrative leave. Two of those employees are still on paid leave and tomorrow will be one year,” Sinema said. Sharon Helman was fired from her position as Phoenix VA healthcare director on Nov. 24, 2014.

“It is wrong that it takes this long to fire people responsible for the poor treatment of veterans,” she said. “We have to change this system.”

They said changing that system starts with House and Senate bills that would give the secretary of Veterans Affairs the authority to remove or demote any employee based on performance or misconduct. A similar version of the bill was introduced last year but never passed.

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Senate sponsors of the Increasing the Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability to Veterans Act of 2015 are Republicans Jerry Moran of Kansas, Marco Rubio of Florida, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Joni Ernst of Iowa and John McCain of Arizona.

Miller is the lead sponsor of the House version of the bill, which Sinema has co-sponsored.

“The VA’s accountability record in one word would be ‘non-existent,’” Miller said Thursday.

“We cannot expect the VA to become a winning team if they’re not willing to cut bad players,” he said. “Right now, either VA leaders won’t do that or they can’t do that.”

The bill also includes provisions to ensure whistleblowers are protected against retaliation.

“Bad actors should be held accountable and those doing good work should be rewarded,” Sinema said. “Whistleblowers working at VAs all over this country are trying to bring accountability and reforms to the system, yet the fear of retaliation holds many of them back.”

Veterans’ advocacy group leaders at Thursday’s event said the bill was overdue.

“This is kind of a familiar crew,” said Concerned Veterans for America CEO Pete Hegseth.

“These same four groups, along with Chairman Miller and Sen. Rubio, stood here in the House about a year ago trying to enact the VA Accountability Act,” he said, but that bill died.

“A year later things haven’t changed,” Hegseth said. “It’s time to get the band back together and make something happen.”

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Miranda Leo/Cronkite News

Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Phoenix, said revelations of doctored wait times and delays of months for veterans seeking care at the Phoenix VA were both 'shocking and sickening.'