Phoenix • The director of Salt Lake City’s veterans hospital has been deployed to Phoenix to oversee the medical center at the heart of a nationwide controversy over veteran waiting time and deaths.
Steven Young will oversee the Phoenix VA Health Care System on Monday, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced. The Phoenix VA is responsible for an estimated 85,000 veterans and an operating budget of about $500 million.
The move comes as the Phoenix VA tries to restore its reputation while it is under investigation for possible patient deaths. In recent weeks, critics of the VA system have alleged that administrators in Phoenix kept an off-the-books list to conceal long wait times as 40 veterans died waiting to get an appointment.
Director Sharon Helman and two other employees were placed on administrative leave May 1.
Young has been the director of the Salt Lake City VA Health Care System since June 2009. Like most of the VA hospitals across the country, Salt Lake City’s has made gains in reducing the backlog of veterans claims for benefits. Young’s tenure in Utah also has seen the VA install clinics in rural communities such as Price and Elko, Nev., where veterans can have a video chat with a physician in Salt Lake City.
In January, a dispute emerged over the sweat lodge at the Salt Lake City VA. The man who had been leading the American Indian ceremonies in the sweat lodge, Arnold Thomas, quit under what he described as duress. He was unhappy with a proposal to reduce the weekly sweats to about 18 a year and concerns about who would pay for the ceremonies’ firewood.
The resignation spurred a three-day demonstration from veterans. Some of the veterans were further upset when it was later revealed, in an email Young sent to other administrators, that VA police used a “guise” to gain information about the demonstrators’ plans.
A contract to lead the sweats has been placed for bid.
Young also served as the interim medical director at Jesse Brown VA Medical Center in Chicago from February 2011 to June 2011. Before taking that position, Young was the deputy network director for VA Sunshine Healthcare Network in Florida.
The claims are the latest to emerge as VA hospitals around the country struggle to handle the huge volume of patients who need medical attention, including aging vets and a newer influx from wars over the last decade.
In the past year, VA facilities in South Carolina, Florida, Georgia and Washington state have been linked to delays in patient care or poor oversight. Government investigators reported this month that employees at a veterans medical clinic in Fort Collins, Colorado, were instructed to falsify records to make it appear as though patients were getting appointments close to the day requested.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki is scheduled to testify next week before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee on care across the VA. Shinseki announced this week he has ordered an audit of access to care at all VA medical centers. Meanwhile, many have called for his resignation.
U.S. Sen. John McCain, who held a forum Friday with veterans, stopped short of demanding Shinseki step down.
“I would like to see Secretary Shinseki in his capacity appearing before Congress and the American people saying what went on,” said McCain, a veteran who served in Vietnam.
Trib Talk on Wednesday — Veterans
Despite the recent controversy, there are signs that health care for veterans is slowly improving. On Wednesday at 12:15 p.m., former Utah Veteran’s Affairs Director Terry Schow and Tribune military reporter Nate Carlisle join Jennifer Napier-Pearce to talk about the progress being made for Utah veterans and what’s left to do. www.sltrib.com