Growing numbers of Democratic and Republican U.S. lawmakers urged Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign after an inspector general reported that inappropriate scheduling practices are “systemic” throughout the nation’s health-care system for veterans.
The agency’s inspector general also reported today that a Phoenix VA hospital hid waiting times for medical care averaging 115 days. And as many as 1,700 veterans were “at risk of being lost of forgotten” when that hospital left them off an official list of patients waiting to see a doctor, the report said.
Democrats now pushing for Shinseki to step down include some facing competitive races in November: Senators Mark Udall of Colorado, Kay Hagan of North Carolina and John Walsh of Montana. They were joined by three House Democrats who won tight races in 2012: Representatives Kyrsten Sinema and Ron Barber of Arizona and Scott Peters of California.
The Veterans for Foreign Wars also today called for Shinseki’s resignation, which has previously been urged by the American Legion. The two groups are the largest U.S. fraternal organizations for veterans.
The scathing inspector general’s report widened the unfolding scandal that, along with the increasing pressure on Shinseki, has put the White House on the defensive and sparked a rare nighttime committee hearing.
Republican and Democratic members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee took turns hammering a trio of Department of Veterans Affairs officials, who told lawmakers a list of veterans in Phoenix awaiting care had been destroyed in 2012 or 2013. The committee has subpoenaed documents from the VA related to the list, which includes at least 40 veterans who died while awaiting care, said Representative Jeff Miller, the Florida Republican who heads the panel.
Representative Phil Roe, a Texas Republican, asked Dr. Thomas Lynch, the VA assistant deputy undersecretary for health for clinical operations and management, how he could “look at yourself in the mirror while you’re shaving every morning and not throw up,” given that the problems in care for veterans that have come to light.
Lynch, who recently visited the VA facilities in Phoenix, told Roe he is focused on finding solutions to the lengthy waits and that, “I take my job seriously.”
The report prompted Miller to call for Shinseki’s resignation.
“Shinseki is a good man who has served his country honorably, but he has failed to get VA’s health-care system in order despite repeated and frequent warnings from Congress, the Government Accountability Office and the IG,” Miller said in a statement.
“What’s worse, to this day, Shinseki -– in both word and deed -– appears completely oblivious to the severity of the health-care challenges facing the department,” Miller said.
President Barack Obama found the inspector general’s report “extremely troubling,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said in an e-mailed statement. Carney reiterated Obama’s call last week for the VA to improve care immediately and not wait for investigations to conclude.
“The president agrees with that action and reaffirms that the VA needs to do more to improve veterans’ access to care,” Carney said, without commenting on the push for Shinseki’s ouster. “Our nation’s veterans have served our country with honor and courage and they deserve to know they will have the care and support they deserve.”
Shinseki, a retired U.S. Army four-star general who was wounded in Vietnam, said his department will “aggressively and fully implement” recommendations in the report, including one to take “immediate action” to provide health care to veterans left off official waiting lists.
“I have reviewed the interim report, and the findings are reprehensible to me, to this department and to veterans,” Shinseki said in a statement today.
The report deepened a political backlash from both parties over VA operations.
“This has been occurring for four years without action to make it stop,” Sinema said in an interview. “I think we’ve seen a lack of leadership on this issue.”
Democratic Representatives John Barrow of Georgia, Rick Nolan of Minnesota, Joe Garcia of Florida and Nick Rahall of West Virginia previously sought Shinseki’s resignation. All are in election races expected to be competitive this year.
Democratic Senate candidates Alison Lundergan Grimes of Kentucky, Natalie Tennant of West Virginia, U.S. Representive Bruce Braley of Iowa and Michelle Nunn of Georgia have also said Shinseki should step down.
Outside groups are beginning to cite the VA scandal as an election issue. Crossroads GPS, a Republican-aligned nonprofit advised by former President George W. Bush aide Karl Rove, said today that it spent $450,000 on a weeklong advertisement in an Alaska Senate race.
“A national disgrace. Veterans die waiting for care that never came,” the 30-second spot began. “Senator Mark Begich sits on the Veterans Affairs committee. His response? ‘If there’s a problem, they need to fix it.’”
The ad concluded: “Tell Senator Begich, when veterans are dying, it is a problem.” Begich, a Democrat, won the Alaska Senate seat in 2008.
The VA report said the official list at the Phoenix hospital showed that veterans waited just 24 days for their first primary-care appointment. A more complete list, though, whose existence was secret and that included more veterans who sought care, showed the average wait-time was 115 days, said the Department of Veterans Affairs inspector general.
The report said a 2010 VA report first disclosed many of the scheduling practices that manipulated patient wait times.
The report said a more detailed review is being conducted to determine whether any deaths occurred as a result of the delays. Miller said April 9 that as many as 40 deaths may be related to delays.
Obama has said he will punish any officials responsible for covering up delays. He assigned Rob Nabors, his deputy chief of staff, to conduct a broader review of veterans’ health care to be delivered next month.
A former Army chief of staff, Shinseki was among Obama’s first choices to head a federal agency. At the time, Shinseki was known for being one of the only generals willing to contradict the Bush administration over the Iraq War when he told Congress in 2003 that several hundred thousand troops may be needed to control the country.
Shinseki resigned from the military after then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the prediction was exaggerated. About 1.5 million Americans served in Iraq, including more than 4,400 who died while serving and another 32,200 wounded in action.
Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican who, like Shinseki, is a wounded Vietnam veteran, told CNN today that it is time for Shinseki “to move on” from the VA post.
The Veterans Health Administration is the nation’s single largest health system, with more than 53,000 independent practitioners providing care to more than 8.3 million veterans each year.