Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki. / Manuel Balce Ceneta, AP
Amid allegations by a retired doctor of up to 40 patients deaths because of delays in medical care at a Phoenix VA hospital, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki Thursday placed the hospital director and two other officials on administrative leave pending a full investigation.
Shinseki took the steps a day after his top health official told Congress there was no evidence so far that patients died awaiting care at the Phoenix facility, nor that records of delayed appointments were falsified.
Shinseki issued a statement late Thursday saying that "we take these allegations very seriously" and that pending results from a VA inspector general investigation, Phoenix hospital Director Sharon Helman, Associate Director Lance Robinson and a third hospital employee were being placed on administrative leave.
"We believe it is important to allow an independent, objective review to proceed. These allegations, if true, are absolutely unacceptable and if the inspector general's investigation substantiates these claims, swift and appropriate action will be taken," Shinseki said.
Dr. Robert Petzel, VA undersecretary for health, told the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs Wednesday that an initial review had found no basis for the allegations.
The office began an investigation five months ago after Arizona Republic reports about the whistle-blower complaints in early April. Petzel said allegations, if true, are "absolutely unacceptable," but he cautioned against a "rush to judgment."
The furor over Phoenix's VA medical system erupted in early April, when a House committee revealed allegations by Sam Foote, a recently retired VA physician who had filed complaints with Congress and the inspector general. No documentary proof has been made public, but other whistle-blowers have supported Foote's claims.
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