Senators want 'heads to roll' over Phoenix VA scandal

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki urged lawmakers to hold their fire until the completion of an Inspector General audit into allegations the VHA in Phoenix was "cooking the books."
By Gabrielle Levy  |  May 15, 2014 at 1:24 PM
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WASHINGTON, May 15 (UPI) -- Lawmakers made little effort Thursday to disguise their anger over recent revelations of systematic abuse at veterans healthcare centers in Arizona last month.

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki faced an outraged panel of senators on the Veterans Affairs Committee who generally stopped short of calling for his resignation but demanded action after reports surfaced that at least 40 veterans had lost their lives after their requests for care were delayed.

Several Phoenix VA employees have since been placed on administrative leave, and Shinseki urged forbearance until the results of an Inspector General audit were available.

But senators demonstrated little patience for what they said was yet another report on issues that have surfaced before.

"Year after year we've been talking about this problems," said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and the chairman of the committee.

"The standard of practice at the VA seems to be to hide the truth in order to look good," added Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

The White House has stood behind the secretary, praising his move to order an audit of all VA clinics. And though there has been some urging from Republicans for him to resign, many, including House Speaker John Boehner, have said they believe forcing Shinseki out would be counterproductive to fixing the deep-rooted problems within the department.

Schedulers allegedly falsified records on the length of time veterans waited to be seen within the Veterans Health Administration system. In order to hew to a 14-day maximum wait-time goal, they would hold off entering an appointment into the computer system until it was within that 14-day period, even if the appointment had been scheduled weeks or months before.

Shinseki said some 6,000 VA employees were disciplined and "involuntarily removed" from their jobs in 2012 and 2013, but declined to say how many were simply reassigned to other positions within the department rather than fired, or whether anyone had been terminated over the scheduling manipulation in Phoenix and elsewhere.

But Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., questioned whether the alleged manipulation should be left to standard internal disciplinary measures when criminal wrongdoing may have been involved.

"Wouldn't it be appropriate to ask for help from the FBI or other agencies, given the IG's resources are so limited and the task is so challenging?" he asked. "In my judgement, there is more than sufficient reason to involve other investigating agencies here in light of the evidence of potential false statements to the federal government."

Shinseki refused to commit to making changes within his management team, at least before the results of the audit, but it was clear that was not doing enough, nor as quickly as quickly as necessary.

"Sometimes you have to have some heads roll in order to have a change in the system," said Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska.

Replied Shinseki: "We're not in disagreement."

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