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Phoenix VA director, 2 others put on administrative leave

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Phoenix VA Director Sharon Helman Phoenix VA Director Sharon Helman
WASHINGTON (CBS5/AP) -

Phoenix VA Director Sharon Helman and two other VA employees have been placed on administrative leave in the wake of serious mismanagement allegations and an investigation by the Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General.

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki said in a statement that Phoenix VA Health Care System Associate Director Lance Robinson and a third PVAHCS employee was also placed on administrative leave until further notice. 

"Providing Veterans the quality care and benefits they have earned through their service is our only mission at the Department of Veterans Affairs," Shinseki said. "We care deeply for every Veteran we are privileged to serve."

Shinseki added: 

"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. 

"Veterans deserve to have full faith in their VA health care. I appreciate the continued hard work and dedication of our employees and of the community stakeholders we work with every day in our service to Veterans."

"I looked at that with great relief," said retired VA doctor Samuel Foote, who said he first wrote to the OIG twice asking for an investigation into so-called 'secret waiting lists' at the hospital before going to the media. "The first step in solving a problem is admitting you have one."

CBS 5 News reported on Tuesday that Helman had been receiving death threats.

Phoenix VA spokesman Scott McRoberts would not confirm the volume of threats or how they have been received by phone, email or other mode.

Helman and her leadership team have come under pressure in recent weeks after allegations that as many as 45 patients may have died as a result of delayed and inadequate care. The allegations include accusations of a cover-up by Helman and her top aides by keeping secret wait lists in an effort to hide the delays in care.

In an interview with CBS 5 News two weeks ago, she denied knowing of any wrongdoing or a secret wait list.

"We look at those cases every day and we have not found that they are linked to any delays in care," Helman said at the time.

The third VA employee placed on leave was not named. 

"I'm sorry I had to throw a lot of rocks at the VA," Foote said. "I did not see any other way to get to the truth without doing it."

[RELATED: Veteran: 'Cancer didn't kill me, but the VA almost did']

Arizona's congressional leadership quickly chimed in.

U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) issued this statement in the wake of the VA's announcement on Thursday:

"Given the seriousness and scope of the allegations regarding practices at the Phoenix VA that the inspector general is currently investigating, Secretary Shinseki's decision today to place the leadership there on administrative leave while that investigation is ongoing, is appropriate. We must get to the truth of these allegations, and if they are validated, hold accountable anyone who would violate our solemn responsibility to provide the best quality of care for those who have served and sacrificed on our nation's behalf."

Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) said:

"Secretary Shinseki's decision to place three Phoenix VA administrators on leave during the internal investigation is a step in the right direction. Given the serious nature of the allegations, the VA Office of Inspector General must have the ability to conduct and conclude the investigation as swiftly as possible.

"The VA must restore our veterans' and the public's trust by caring for our veterans appropriately. Our veterans and their families need answers, and we must hold accountable those responsible."

Congressman Matt Salmon (R-AZ) said Shinseki "made the right decision" and he's looking forward "to a swift and complete investigation" into the allegations.

Congressman David Schweikert (R-AZ) said the move "is a step in the right direction."

Copyright 2014 CBS 5 (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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