U.S. House Democrats’ campaign chairman became the highest-ranking party member to call on Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign over long waiting times for care at VA hospitals.
“I am fed up with these problems,” Representative Steve Israel of New York, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said today in an interview on CNN. “He should resign, in my view.”
Earlier in the day, the House Veterans Affairs Committee chairman said he’ll ask a court to force disclosure of documents related to a secret waiting list of patients in Phoenix.
“Our next step is federal courts,” panel Chairman Jeff Miller, a Florida Republican, told reporters.
Miller said he’s preparing a lawsuit to be filed against the U.S. government in federal court in Washington. He’s seeking documents from the Department of Veterans Affairs related to the destruction of a secret list kept by Phoenix VA hospital officials to hide excessive waiting times for patients seeking appointments.
Miller’s panel on May 8 ordered the government to produce the documents, and he said the committee hasn’t received them.
Israel said on CNN that Shinseki’s resignation wouldn’t be enough to resolve the VA’s problems.
“What is going to solve the problem is a criminal investigation with or without his resignation, and getting to the roots of this to make sure that it’s solved and it never happens again,” Israel said.
An inspector general’s report yesterday found “systemic” problems in scheduling health care for veterans. Lawmakers held a rare nighttime hearing to vent their frustration with the agency.
“Where in the world is the urgency” to fix the deficiencies, U.S. Representative Jackie Walorski, an Indiana Republican, asked three VA officials at a session that lasted four hours and ended shortly before midnight. “I have more questions tonight than I did when I walked in here.”
Richard Griffin, the department’s acting inspector general, reported yesterday that in reviewing 42 VA medical facilities, his office documented repeated instances of patient waiting lists being manipulated.
At the Phoenix VA facility that first focused attention on the agency, as many as 1,700 veterans were “at risk of being lost or forgotten” when the hospital left them off an official list of patients waiting to see a doctor, the report said.
The official list showed that veterans waited 24 days for their first primary-care appointment in Phoenix, while a more complete list -- which was kept secret -- showed the average waiting time was 115 days, according to the report.
The report said a 2010 VA study first disclosed many of the practices that manipulated patient waiting times.
Miller said he’s drafting legislation that would require care be offered outside the VA system to veterans who waited at least 30 days for a medical appointment. The proposal, which would require reports from the VA to Congress on care provided under the new rules, has support from House Speaker John Boehner, said his spokesman Michael Steel.
Boehner, an Ohio Republican, hasn’t called for Shinseki’s resignation, telling reporters today that “the president is the one who should be held accountable.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, said today that she would be open to supporting Miller’s plan.
Pelosi also has resisted calling for Shinseki to resign. “It’s easy to call for somebody at the top to go,” she said. “Is it a solution? Is it an answer? That remains to be seen.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said his chamber’s Veterans Affairs Committee will work on legislation “to address these deeply rooted problems.”
Senate leaders are considering bringing up legislation next week that would make it easier to dismiss VA officials for misconduct, said a Democratic leadership aide who sought anonymity to discuss the plans. A similar proposal passed the House, which has also voted to freeze bonuses for senior VA officials through the 2018 fiscal year.
A growing number of Democrats joined Republican colleagues in urging Shinseki to resign.
Democrats calling for him to step down include some facing competitive races in November: Senators Mark Warner of Virginia, Mark Udall of Colorado, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Al Franken of Minnesota, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and John Walsh of Montana.
Also seeking the secretary’s resignation are Democratic Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, both of New Mexico, and Tim Kaine of Virginia.
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 American Legion has called on Shinseki to resign, while the Veterans of Foreign Wars yesterday said it wanted Shinseki to “immediately fire every employee and supervisor who knowingly gamed the reporting system.” The two groups are the largest U.S. fraternal organizations for veterans.
At last night’s hearing, Republican and Democratic members of the Veterans Affairs Committee took turns hammering the three government officials, who told them that the list of veterans in Phoenix awaiting care had been destroyed in 2012 or 2013.
At least 40 veterans died while awaiting care, Miller said.
Representative Phil Roe, a Tennessee Republican, asked Thomas Lynch, 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 the problems in care for veterans.
Lynch, who recently visited VA facilities in Phoenix, told Roe he is working to find solutions to the lengthy waits. “I take my job seriously,” he said.
Lynch said performance measures that rewarded officials for short waiting times undermined the agency’s focus on what should have been its priority -- efficiently serving veterans.
“Our performance measures have become our goals, not tools to help us understand where we needed to invest resources,” Lynch said. “We undermined the integrity of our data when we elevated our performance measures to goals.”
He told lawmakers the VA’s health system needed additional capacity and more physicians.
The inspector general’s report prompted Miller to call for Shinseki’s resignation. He “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.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney declined today to say whether President Barack Obama had confidence in the secretary. Instead he referred to the president’s statement last week, before the report was released, that the VA must improve care immediately.
Carney said Shinseki will provide an interim report to the president by the end of this week. Obama has assigned Rob Nabors, his deputy chief of staff, to conduct a broader review of veterans’ health care to be delivered next month.
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.
A former Army chief of staff, Shinseki was among Obama’s first choices to head a federal agency. At the time, he 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 and another 32,200 who were wounded.
The Veterans Health Administration is the nation’s single largest integrated health system, with more than 53,000 independent practitioners providing care to more than 8.3 million veterans each year.