Nov 25, 3:25 AM EST

VA fires troubled Phoenix hospital director


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PHOENIX (AP) -- Nearly seven months after the Department of Veterans Affairs became embroiled in a nationwide scandal, the agency fired the head of its troubled Phoenix hospital amid allegations of misconduct and cover-ups.

Sharon Helman's ouster Monday comes as the department continues its crackdown on wrongdoing, including long wait times for veterans seeking medical care and falsified records covering up the delays.

Helman, director of the Phoenix VA Health Care System, was placed on administrative leave with two other high-ranking officials in May amid an investigation into allegations that 40 veterans died while awaiting treatment. Helman had led the Phoenix facility, which treats more than 80,000 veterans a year, since February 2012.

Veterans and lawmakers hailed Helman's termination as another step forward in the process of fixing long-standing problems at the VA, but they warned there is still a lot of work to be done.

"There are still many more VA scandal figures who also must be purged from the department's payroll in order for veterans and families to receive the closure they deserve," Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chair of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, said in a statement.

Veterans in Phoenix had a similar reaction.

"It's just a slow process," said James Lawson, a 66-year-old Army veteran. "I appreciate the VA, and they're correcting things now, but there's still a lot that has to be corrected."

The Phoenix hospital was at the center of the wait-time scandal, which led to the ouster of former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and a new, $16 billion law overhauling the labyrinthine veterans' health care system.

VA Secretary Robert McDonald said Helman's dismissal underscores the agency's commitment to hold leaders accountable.

An investigation by the VA's office of inspector general found that workers at the Phoenix VA hospital falsified waiting lists, resulting in chronic delays for veterans seeking care. At least 40 patients died while awaiting appointments, the report said, but officials could not "conclusively assert" that the delays caused the deaths.

"Lack of oversight and misconduct by VA leaders runs counter to our mission of serving veterans, and VA will not tolerate it," McDonald said.

Helman is the fifth senior executive nationwide fired or forced to resign in recent weeks in response to the wait-time scandal. It didn't come soon enough for some.

"The fact that this is such a high-profile wrongdoer in the VA, and it takes so long to fire her, shows why our vets are so frustrated by the bureaucracy within the VA," said Alex Nicholson, legislative director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

Helman referred questions to a Washington law firm, which did not return a telephone message Monday evening from The Associated Press.

She has worked at the VA since 1990 and was placed on leave shortly after a former longtime Phoenix clinic director leveled the allegations of deaths, delays in care and secret waiting lists.

Dr. Samuel Foote brought the allegations to light and says supervisors ignored his complaints for months before he retired in December.

Foote called Helman's dismissal "a good first step," but said the VA still needs to show it is serious about changing its culture.

In an interview with the AP in May, hours before being placed on leave, Helman denied any knowledge of a secret list or patient deaths due to delayed care.

"I have given over 20 years of service to this mission. I am proud to lead this hospital," Helman said then. "I have never wavered from the ethical standards that I have held my entire career, and I will continue to give these veterans what they deserve, which is the best health care."

Glenn Grippen, a longtime VA administrator who retired in 2011, has been named interim director of the Phoenix VA Health Care System.

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Daly reported from Washington.

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