The Obama administration and the Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki were on the hot seat yesterday at a hearing of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, which was probing allegations of treatment delays and falsified patient-appointment reports at health centers run by the VA.
In the latest scandal plaguing the agency, a former clinic director says dozens of veterans died while awaiting treatment at the Phoenix VA hospital.
Both Democrats and Republicans expressed dissatisfaction with the agency’s inability to clean up its mess. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, pointed out that reports of problems at VA medical facilities date back at least 14 years, and in each case were followed by promises of action, according to the Associated Press.
“We have come to the point where we need more than good intentions,” Murray told Shinseki at a hearing Thursday. “What we need from you now is decisive action to restore veterans’ confidence in VA, create a culture of transparency and accountability and change these systemwide, years-long problems.”
Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., said the VA is “suffering from an absence of public leadership and is foundering as a result.”
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said the Obama administration “has failed to respond in an effective manner” to reports about the Phoenix VA and other facilities across the country.
“This has created in our veterans community a crisis of confidence toward the VA,” McCain said.
The committee also heard from Ryan Gallucci, deputy director for national legislative service of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, who testified that VFW members are outraged and frustrated that nearly a month after the allegations surfaced, “we still do not know who the veterans are who may have died waiting for care.”
The AP noted that the VA operates the largest single health-care system in the country, with an estimated 9 million veterans served every year. Though surveys show patients are mostly satisfied with their care, the numbers of those needing treatment are growing. In addition, access is becoming an issue as Vietnam veterans age and increasing numbers of veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars seek treatment for physical and mental health problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder.
“If the system is failing, it is their duty to fix it,” Gallucci said of Shinseki and his top aides.
“Given evidence of mismanagement on multiple fronts in Colorado and across the nation, it appears that you have either been shielded from the realities on the ground or have decided to keep your distance from critical issues and delegate site visits to others,” Udall told Shinseki in a letter.
In response to the attacks, Shinseki, a retired four-star Army general who has been in charge of the VA since 2009, promised a preliminary report within three weeks on treatment delays and falsified patient-appointment reports at VA health centers.
In addition, President Obama has put deputy White House chief of staff Rob Nabors in charge of a review of VA health care procedures and policies.
Shinseki told the senators that in 2012 and again in 2013 the agency “involuntarily removed” 3,000 of its 300,000 employees for poor performance or misconduct. Shinseki said some employees were given new assignments, others retired and some were fired.
“Any allegation, any adverse incident like this makes me mad as hell,” he said.
Asked at one point if he should resign, Shinseki said he intended to continue working until he achieves his goal of improved care “or I am told by my commander in chief that my time has been served.”
Obama said he asked Shinseki to review “practices to ensure better access to care.”
“While we get to the bottom of what happened in Phoenix, it’s clear the VA needs to do more to ensure quality care for our veterans,” Obama said.
But Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., told Shinseki it was time to call in the FBI, “given that the IG’s resources are so limited, that the task is so challenging and the need for results is so powerful.”