Topics: Veterans Affairs

Faces of scandal at the Department of Veterans Affairs

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Watchdog,Mark Flatten,Barack Obama,Veterans Affairs,Health Care,Accountability,Minusextra,Veterans,Eric Shinseki

Long delays, falsified records, lavish bonuses and wasteful spending have defined a series of scandals across the Department of Veterans Affairs. Here are some of the top players who have come to define the agency's failures.

The man in charge

Eric Shinseki

(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Secretary of Veterans Affairs

Shinseki is a retired four-star general appointed by President Obama in 2009. When he took office, Shinseki vowed to end the backlog of disability claims and improve veterans' health care. In subsequent years, the disability backlog ballooned, peaking in early 2013 when more than 70 percent of the almost 900,000 disability claims were older than 125 days. More recently, Shinseki has been under fire for a series of reports of preventable patient deaths due to long delays in care at veterans' hospitals nationwide. The Washington Examiner reported in February about efforts to manipulate data on wait times to hide long backlogs at veterans' hospitals, and linked those efforts to performance bonuses for top hospital administrators. In April, allegations of secret waiting lists used to hide long delays in Phoenix were revealed. An interim inspector general's report issued in May confirmed the practice in Phoenix and other VA facilities. Shinseki resigned within days of the IG report being released.

Veterans Health Administration

Robert Petzel

(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Under Secretary for Health

Petzel was appointed as the top health care official at VA in February 2010. Since then, there have been a series of reports from the agency's inspector general documenting preventable patient deaths at hospitals nationwide. Yet many of the top administrators at those hospitals received performance bonuses, and none was fired. Petzel became the agency's chief defender at congressional hearings, dismissing the documented deaths as isolated incidents and insisting management deficiencies had been corrected. More recently, Petzel challenged reports by the Examiner and other media about falsification of patient records to hide long wait times. In April, VA officials acknowledged 23 patients died of gastrointestinal cancers after delays in diagnostic tests. Petzel announced his planned retirement in 2013. He finally resigned in May 2014, the day after a Senate hearing at which he and Shinseki were questioned about years of ignored warnings about records manipulation and backlogs at veterans' hospitals.

Michael Moreland

(Courtesy photo)

VA health care regional director, Pittsburgh

Moreland came to embody the VA's practice of rewarding failure after receiving a $63,000 Presidential Distinguished Rank Award bonus just days after an inspector general's report was released linking a half-dozen patient deaths from Legionnaires Disease to mismanagement at the Pittsburgh VA hospital. Moreland was the regional director of the area that included the facility. In addition to the presidential award, Moreland collected almost $98,000 in other bonuses between 2007 and 2011. He retired in October 2013. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, at the time described Moreland as “the poster child for the widespread and systemic lack of accountability” at VA.

James Clark

Atlanta VA Medical Center Director

Widespread mismanagement was blamed for at least three preventable patient deaths at the Atlanta VA facility, and possibly a fourth. The hospital failed to deliver adequate and timely mental health care to veterans prior to the deaths from suicide or drug overdose. Yet Clark collected almost $66,000 in performance bonuses between 2007 and 2011. He retired in December 2012.

Sharon Helman

(Courtesy photo)

Director of the Phoenix VA Health Care System

Whistleblower allegations that secret appointment lists were fraudulently kept in Phoenix to falsify long patient wait times erupted in June when they were publicly revealed at a House committee hearing. Helman denied the practice, which has since been confirmed by the VA inspector general. Shinseki said in late May that he had “initiated the process for the removal of the senior leaders” at the Phoenix VA. He provided no details about who they are or whether they were fired. Shinseki resigned later that day. A week earlier, VA announced that it would rescind a $9,300 bonus paid to Helman in 2013 for outstanding performance. Helman also collected more than $32,000 in bonuses between 2008 and 2011.

James Robinson

Director of the VA Medical Center Memphis

Improper care in the emergency room led to three patient deaths at the VA hospital in Memphis in 2012, while Robinson was the director, according to an inspector general's investigation. One patient died after being given medication despite a documented allergy to the drug. Another died after being administered multiple medications without proper management and a third died after delays in getting proper treatment for very high blood pressure. Robinson received a $10,782 bonus in 2011. He left the agency in 2012.

Rebecca Wiley

(Courtesy photo)

Director of VA hospitals in Columbia, S.C. and Augusta, Ga.

From February 2007 until November 2011, Wiley was director of the VA medical center in Augusta, Ga. During that time, it was revealed that improper sterilization procedures endangered veterans. Subsequent investigations led to more than 10,000 veterans being notified that they may have been exposed to infections because of improperly sterilized equipment. In November 2011, Wiley was named director of the VA medical center in Columbia, S.C. The VA inspector general later found mismanagement at the Columbia hospital led to a backlog of nearly 4,000 delays in gastrointestinal testing, such as colonoscopies, that were later linked to the deaths of six patients. Wiley received about $10,000 in bonuses between 2007 and 2011. She retired in October 2013, about a month after the IG report on the deaths in Columbia was released.

Veterans Benefits Administration

Allison Hickey

(VA photo by Kate Hoit)

Under Secretary for Benefits

Hickey took over the benefits side of the VA in June 2011 with the primary task of fulfilling Shinseki's pledge that all veterans' claims would be processed within 125 days with 98 percent accuracy by 2015. But the ever-increasing backlogs continued under her watch. There were about 833,000 benefits claims pending when Hickey took office, with about 57 percent backlogged. By March 2013, more than 70 percent of the nearly 900,000 claims were backlogged. Under intense pressure from Congress, veterans' groups and the media, VA launched a series of initiatives to reduce the backlogs, including requiring claims processors to work mandatory overtime. Currently about half of the 566,000 pending claims are backlogged.

Diana Rubens

(Rod Lamkey/Getty Images)

Deputy under secretary for field operations

Rubens collected almost $97,000 in performance bonuses between 2007 and 2011 for overseeing all regional offices that process disability benefits claims. Under her watch, disability claims backlogs skyrocketed. The average time to process a claim doubled between 2009 and 2013 to 325 days. Backlogged cases also went from about 37 percent in 2009 to about 71 percent last year.

Sandra Flint

(Courtesy photo)

Regional office director in Phoenix

Under Flint's leadership, the backlog of disability claims in Phoenix more than doubled from 2009 to 2013, reaching more than 80 percent. That made it one of the worst-performing offices in the country. Yet Flint received more than $53,000 in bonuses between 2007 and 2011.

Carl Hawkins

Regional office director in Columbia, S.C.

A 2008 investigation by the VA inspector general found documents critical to processing disability claims were improperly shredded at 40 regional offices nationwide. The Columbia office accounted for about a fifth of those wrongly destroyed documents, the most of any location. Also, between 2009 and 2013, the backlog of disability claims in Columbia more than doubled from about 33 percent to more than 71 percent. Yet Hawkins, who had been regional office director since 1998, was paid almost $80,000 in performance bonuses between 2007 and 2011, among the most of any regional office director. He retired in May 2013.


John Sepulveda

(Courtesy photo)

Assistant secretary for human resources and administration

A video parody of the movie “Patton” came to epitomize the wasteful spending at a pair of VA training conferences in Orlando in 2011. Sepulveda was the top official involved in planning the conferences, where up to $762,000 was wasted, according to an inspector general's investigation released in a 2012. Subsequent congressional investigations found mismanagement, unethical behavior and irresponsible leadership led to the massive wasteful spending at the conferences. Sepulveda resigned the weekend before the inspector general's report was issued. In October 2013, he invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination when questioned about the conferences at a congressional hearing.

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Mark Flatten

Senior Watchdog Reporter
The Washington Examiner