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Phoenix VA officially fires three officials for negligence, other reasons

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

PHOENIX — The Veterans Administration announced Wednesday it had officially removed three Phoenix officials for negligence and other reasons.

The VA first moved to fire Dr. Darren Deering, the hospital’s chief of staff; Lance Robinson, the hospital’s associate director; and Brad Curry, chief of health administration services in March for their roles in a national scandal erupted two years ago over secret waiting lists and unnecessary deaths.

“We have an obligation to veterans and the American people to take appropriate accountability actions as supported by evidence,” VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson said in a press release. “While this process took far too long, the evidence supports these removals and sets the stage for moving forward.”

All three have the right to appeal their firing.

Gibson said he was confident that the latest firings would be upheld on appeal. At least three previous firings or other disciplinary actions taken by the VA have been overturned.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) praised the firings.

“The removal of three senior Phoenix VA officials for wrongdoing is a long-overdue step toward bringing justice and accountability to the agency responsible for providing our veterans with timely and quality care,” he said in a statement, though he added the federal government has a “long way to go to reform this agency.”

Two Arizona congresswomen — Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) — echoed McCain’s sentiments with similar statements.

“While I welcome [Wednesday’s] news, this is long overdue,” Sinema said. “Our veterans deserve better.”

Phoenix VA officials said it would not be appropriate to comment on the firings as they did not make the decision.

Robinson and Curry had returned to work at the VA after being placed on leave in May 2014 as the wait-time scandal emerged.

When the action against the three was announced in March, Gibson said the firings should help the embattled agency “move past” the wait-time scandal that has consumed the agency for nearly two years.

The high-profile Phoenix cases “have served as a distraction to the progress being made to improve the care we provide in Phoenix and across the nation,” Gibson said. “Today marks an important step in moving past the events of the past and refocusing solely on caring for our nation’s veterans.”

The removal of the three executives follows the 2014 firing of Sharon Helman, the hospital’s former director. Helman pleaded guilty last month to making false financial disclosures to the federal government about yearly gifts. She received two years’ probation.

Helman, who oversaw the Carl T. Hayden VA Medical Center in Phoenix from 2012 to 2014, was fired after whistleblowers disclosed to Congress that veterans seeking appointments faced delays of up to a year and as many as 40 veterans died while waiting for care. Subsequent investigations found that veterans faced chronic delays for treatment and that VA officials in Phoenix and throughout the country had created secret waiting lists and other falsified records to cover up the delays.

Helman is suing to get her job back. The Justice Department said it will not contest the element of her challenge, but will fight against her reinstatement.

The scandal affected tens of thousands of veterans and prompted an outcry in Congress that continues as lawmakers and agency leaders struggle over how to improve the VA. A 2014 overhaul approved by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama has alleviated some of the problems, but the VA acknowledges that many problems remain.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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