Embattled Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki said he has moved to fire the Phoenix VA hospital leaders and apologized for health care lapses as he prepared to meet today with President Barack Obama.
“Leadership and integrity problems can and must be fixed now,” Shinseki said at the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans’ conference today. Obama will meet with Shinseki at 10:15 a.m. for a “serious conversation” about whether he “is prepared and has the capacity” for the job, the president said in an interview broadcast on ABC today.
The meeting comes amid mounting calls for Shinseki’s resignation within Obama’s own party after revelations of a secret list of veterans seeking medical appointments in order to hide long wait times in Phoenix. At least 40 veterans died while awaiting care, said House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, a Florida Republican.
Shinseki said today there will be no performance bonuses for senior VA health officials this year and that waiting times will no longer factor into performance reviews. Lammakers and VA officials have said bonuses encouraged hospital officials to manipulate wait lists.
“VA has a systemic, totally unacceptable lack of integrity with some of our veterans health facilities,” Shinseki said.
Shinseki’s speech comes before he’s scheduled to meet with Obama at the White House. The president is expecting a preliminary report on allegations of mismanagement at VA hospitals.
The top Democrat in charge of U.S. House campaigns said it’s time for Shinseki to step down. Representative Steve Israel of New York yesterday became the highest-ranking party member to call on Shinseki to resign over long wait times for veterans to see doctors.
“I am fed up with these problems,” Israel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said yesterday in an interview on CNN. “He should resign, in my view.”
An inspector general’s report issued two days ago found “systemic” problems in scheduling health care for veterans, including an average 115-day wait for patients seeking doctor’s appointments at the Phoenix hospital. .
Obama should stop defending Shinseki, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in an opinion article published on FoxNews.com.
“New management is long overdue, something even the president’s own party now recognizes,” said McConnell, a Kentucky Republican.
Israel said on CNN that Shinseki’s resignation wouldn’t be enough to resolve the issue at the VA.
“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.
Miller, a Florida Republican, said he would ask a federal court in Washington to force disclosure of documents related to a secret waiting list of patients in Phoenix.
He’s seeking documents from the Department of Veterans Affairs related to the destruction of the list kept by Phoenix hospital officials to hide excessive waiting times. He said his panel hasn’t received the documents after ordering the government on May 8 to produce them.
Richard Griffin, the department’s acting inspector general, reported 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.
Lawmakers held a rare nighttime hearing on May 28 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 the hearing. “I have more questions tonight than I did when I walked in here.”
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 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 yesterday that “the president is the one who should be held accountable.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, said 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 a measure 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 with 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 called on Shinseki to resign, while the Veterans of Foreign Wars 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 the May 28 hearing, Republican and Democratic members of the Veterans Affairs Committee hammered at three government officials, who told them that the list of veterans in Phoenix awaiting care had been destroyed in 2012 or 2013.
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 wait times 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.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney declined to say yesterday whether 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.