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Staff at embattled Phoenix VA pocketed bonuses, hefty salaries

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The Phoenix VA Health Care Center in Phoenix is seen in this April 28, 2014, file photo. (AP)

Employees at the embattled Phoenix office of the Department of Veterans Affairs have been making millions in higher-than-average salaries and bonuses, according to federal records reviewed by Fox News. 

The records were obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request by OpentheBooks.com

They show that from 2011 to 2013, over $843,000 in bonuses was awarded to about half the system's 3,170 workers. 

The records also show hundreds of thousands in taxpayer dollars were spent on work that had little to do with health care. The hospital's 2013 gardening budget was more than $180,000. The hospital's interior design bills over the past three years surpassed $211,000. 

The figures have raised concern, as the Phoenix VA faces accusations that up to 40 veterans may have died while waiting for critical care. VA Secretary Eric Shinseki is testifying Thursday on Capitol Hill on the scandal. 

"Our nation's veterans need access to health care and doctors, not interior decorators and designers," Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said in a statement. "I'm proud of the work ordinary citizens and groups like Open the Books are doing to hold the VA accountable." 

Total compensation, records show, topped $700 million over the past three years and exceeded $240 million in 2013 alone. Salaries make up about half the Phoenix VA's annual budget, with doctors and nurses making up just a quarter of the Phoenix VA staff.  The Phoenix VA currently treats 78,000 veterans, putting the Phoenix VA's doctor-to-patient ratio at 1-to-345. 

Staff salaries, according to the records, reach as high as $357,528 for doctor executives and $147,724 for nurse staff.  The average Arizona doctor makes just over half of what the top-paid Phoenix VA doctors make, according to federal stats. 

One Phoenix VA chaplain was paid more than $100,000 in 2013. 

Phoenix VA Director Sharon Helman, now on leave, received the highest bonus compensation in 2013, with $9,345.   

"Taxpayers paid out tens of millions in salaries to an elite corps of doctors and health care experts," said Adam Andrzejewski, founder of federal spending database OpenTheBooks.com. "None of them blew the whistle. These experts were either incompetent or made too fat on the taxpayer gravy train." 

Records from the Phoenix VA's non-medical departments reveal that bonuses were paid out across the hospital's branches. The hospital's one Quality Assurance unit worker earned roughly $90,000 a year for 2011 and 2012, without bonuses. 

As complaints about care quality and alleged cover-ups mounted, the Phoenix VA did not expand its Quality Assurance unit beyond its one employee. 

Rep. David Schweikert, R-Ariz., says his office received complaints on the Phoenix VA hospital system for over a year, and that he turned these concerns over to House investigators. However, it was not until whistle-blower and former Phoenix VA staff member Dr. Sam Foote lodged his complaints with lawmakers and the inspector general that inquiries began into deaths potentially tied to delayed treatment and some 1,600 military veteran patients waiting months for care. 

Earlier this month, Phoenix VA Director Helman, Associate Director Lance Robinson and a third unidentified employee were placed on leave. 

The Phoenix VA did not return multiple requests for comment.