WASHINGTON—The secretary of Veterans Affairs told senators Thursday that he is “mad as hell” over the long delays veterans are facing at some of the nation’s VA hospitals.
“It also saddens me,” said Eric Shinseki, facing intense criticism and tough questions on Capitol Hill from members of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “It’s important to me to assure the veterans, to regain their trust.”
In the past few weeks, allegations of misconduct have surfaced at several VA medical facilities, indicating records were falsified to portray patient wait times as reasonable. But wait times at some facilities last months. Such delays are said to have resulted in the deaths of at least 40 veterans awaiting care at a VA clinic in Phoenix, Ariz. The investigation launched by the allegations in Arizona has led to the discovery of similar long wait time problems in seven other states from Wyoming to Georgia.
“If any of these allegations are true, they’re completely unacceptable to me, to veterans,” said Shinseki, a former Army general who appeared before the Senate in damage control mode as some lawmakers called for his ouster. “I’m committed to take all actions necessary to identify exactly what the issues are, to fix them, and to strengthen veterans’ trust in VA health care.”
Trying to show that he has been proactive already, Shinseki told senators he placed three VA employees on administrative leave after the investigation by the VA’s inspector general. That preliminary investigation revealed some VA clinics use secret waiting lists to hide actual wait times that extend far beyond the maximum 14 days established by VA’s guidelines.
Lawmakers on the committee from both parties were eager to jump on Shinseki in front of the hearing’s cameras. They called on Obama administration officials to be more transparent about the crisis and what they intend to do to stop it. Shinseki promised a more detailed report showing the extent of the problem would be released within the month.
Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., the top-ranking Republican on the committee, expressed doubt over the use of an internal report. He said plenty of evidence already exists showing the VA’s delay issues were widespread.
“VA leadership either failed to connect the dots or failed to address this ongoing crisis, which has resulted in patient harm and patient deaths,” Burr said. “Why should this committee, or any veteran in America, believe that change is going to happen?”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., called for a wider investigation than just the VA’s own inspector general. He said it is clear a pattern of problems exists throughout the VA system, and accused some employees of criminal behavior. In a suggestion that Shinseki did not agree with, Blumenthal said the VA should get help with its investigation from the FBI.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., well-known for his service in Vietnam, does not sit on the committee. But he asked for special permission to speak at the hearing, since his state is at the heart of the failures.
“We should all be ashamed,” McCain said. “Decent care for our veterans is the most solemn obligation our nation incurs. We will be judged by God and history.”
While McCain did not call for Shinseki’s resignation, other Republican lawmakers did, including Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan. While Democrats stopped short of demanding Shinseki step down, the senators from Obama’s party were unusually harsh on the president’s cabinet member.
“I continue to believe you take this seriously and want to do the right thing,” Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., told Shinseki. “But we’ve come to the point where we need more than good intentions. This needs to be a wakeup call for the department. The lack of accountability is inexcusable.”
When Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., asked Shinseki if he would resign, the packed crowd in the committee room let out slight gasps and murmurs. But Shinseki, who at five years and three months is the longest serving VA secretary in history, said he would leave only when he finishes his mission or the president asks him to resign.
“I am here to make things better for veterans,” he said. “Over the last five years, we’ve done a lot. But we’re not done yet.”
But Shinseki, who as an active Army officer clashed with the Bush administration over the Iraq war, has lost the backing of the American Legion. It’s national commander, Daniel Dellinger, is urging him to step down.
When Blumenthal asked Shinseki if some of his top management team should go, Shinseki replied, “perhaps.”
Not every lawmaker tried to bludgeon Shinseki. Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who caucuses with the Democrats, warned against “a rush to judgment.” He also used the hearing to get in a swipe at America’s healthcare system. Sanders argued that the VA’s overall record shows that most patients are getting good care.
“It is not the case that the rest of health care in America is just wonderful,” he said.
But Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., struck back, arguing that while “the chairman has said we shouldn’t have a rush to judgment … we should have a rush to accountability.”
To blunt the hearing’s negative press, the Obama White House late Wednesday announced it had appointed a top advisor, deputy chief of staff Rob Nabors, to assist the VA as it tries to correct its scheduling issues.
Meanwhile, just before Thursday’s hearing, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and Project on Government Oversight announced a joint initiative to protect VA whistle-blowers. The new website the watchdog groups are launching will help shield veterans who come forward with more allegations and evidence of misconduct and wrongdoing at VA facilities across the nation.
“Our members are outraged and expect substantive and meaningful evidence that long-standing inefficiency are being appropriately addressed and appropriate VA personal are being held accountable,” said Tom Tarantino, the chief policy officer for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “Veterans must be assured that the VA can deliver quality care in a timely matter. Veterans are tired of business as usual. The VA has a long way to go to earn back the trust and confidence of the millions of veterans shaken by this growing controversy.”
The VA operates 150 medical centers and 820 outpatient clinics where 85 million appointments are scheduled each year. VA officials claim 2 million additional patients have been added to the rolls since 2009.