VA rescinds Helman's bonus; 2 versions of why

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Susan Bowers Susan Bowers
Sharon Helman (Source: CBS 5 News) Sharon Helman (Source: CBS 5 News)
PHOENIX (CBS5/AP) -

Embattled Phoenix VA Health Care System Director Sharon Helman's nearly $9,400 bonus for last year has been rescinded.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki exercised his authority Wednesday to rescind Helman's performance award for fiscal year 2013, VA officials in Washington said.

Last year, Helman was awarded a $9,345 bonus in addition to her $169,000 annual salary.

According to a VA spokesman, the bonus had been awarded through "an administrative error."

But that is not what Helman's direct supervisor, Susan Bowers, told CBS 5 News in an exclusive interview last week. Bowers is the director of the VA's Southwest Health Care Network. She oversees VA operations in Arizona, New Mexico and part of Texas.

"During fiscal year 2013 Ms. Helman made significant improvements in removing some of the access concerns, the long waits, moving to the electronic wait list, which had not been well in place before she came," said Bowers.

Bonuses are based on certain metrics achieved. According to Bowers, Helman's bonus was based on her performance. During her interview with CBS 5 News she made no mention of an "administrative error."

"She received the bonus for a highly successful rating," said Bowers.

Helman was placed on administrative leave on May 1 amid investigations into extreme wait times and scheduling procedures that allegedly resulted in the deaths of at least 40 veterans. There are also serious allegations of manipulating the wait times to make them look shorter than they actually were in order to meet performance metrics.

Federal investigators probing the claims raised by several former VA employees said they have so far not linked any patient deaths in Phoenix to delayed care. A report is due in August.

Helman told The Associated Press in an interview the day she was put on leave that she was appalled by the notion she would manipulate wait times and put patient lives at risk to collect a bonus. She also said she gave the bonus money to her children to help them out, dismissing the idea she collected the money to enrich herself.

According to Open the Books, a non-profit group that tracks government spending, one in five employees at the Phoenix VA received bonuses in 2013. Helman's was the largest. The rest ranged $50 to $5,000. The total bonus pay outs were $337,885.

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