Frustrated senators from both parties slammed top Department of Veterans Affairs officials on Thursday for ignoring reports about long wait times for veterans seeking health services and for apparently failing to fire employees who tried to hide the truth.
The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee held a hearing Thursday morning on the scandal, which broke a month ago with reports that VA officials in Phoenix were manipulating records to make it look like veterans were waiting just a few weeks for appointments. In reality, many waited much longer, and the department has admitted these delays contributed to about 40 deaths.
Senators from both parties said this practice appears to be taking place at VA clinics across the country. They also blamed VA Secretary Eric Shinseki for failing to respond to more than a decade’s worth of reports from the Government Accountability Office and the VA’s own inspector general that detailed long wait times.
In one exchange, Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) said an internal VA memo from 2010 detailed the “gaming strategies” that some VA workers were using to make it look like wait times were short. That 4-year-old memo said, “these practices will not be tolerated.”
Shinseki said he was not aware of the memo, although VA Undersecretary of Health Robert Petzel said he knew of it. Isakson then asked how the department reacted to the memo.
“If it’s not going to be tolerated, and over four years ago you had eight pages of known practices for gaming the system, what action if any — and I don’t think any took place — did the VA do to respond?” Isakson asked.
Petzel said the department has worked “very hard” to stop inappropriate manipulation of wait-time data. But when asked what happens when a worker is found to be doing this, Petzel waffled and said officials would be “disciplined.”
Isakson pressed on, asking if that meant people would lose their jobs.
“I don’t know whether that’s the appropriate level of punishment,” Petzel said.
Shinseki jumped in and said thousands of people have been dismissed from their positions for other reasons. But when pressed by Isakson, Shinseki admitted that some of these people were likely just re-assigned to different jobs within the VA.
When asked later by Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) how many people have been fired specifically for data manipulation, Shinseki admitted he did not know and said he would have to get back to the committee.
“I do not know,” Shinseki said.
Anger over the scandal is not exclusive to the Senate. In the House, the Veterans’ Affairs Committee has voted to subpoena Shinseki. Just days before that, the American Legion called on him to step down.
In Thursday’s Senate hearing, Republicans and Democrats began by blaming top leaders at the department for doing nothing to fix a problem that has been around for years.
“We’re here to discuss today when senior leadership in the department became aware that local VA employees were manipulating wait times to show that veterans do not wait at all for care,” said Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the top Republican on the committee. “The leadership has either failed to connect the dots, or failed to address this ongoing crisis, which has resulted in patient harm and in patient death.”
“I am very frustrated to be here once again talking about some deeply disturbing issues and allegations,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.). “It’s extremely disappointing that the department has repeatedly failed to address wait times for healthcare.”
Shinseki said he was equally outraged at the idea that VA employees were purposefully manipulating data, and promised action.
“Any allegation, any adverse incident like this, makes me mad as hell,” he said. “I could use stronger language … but in deference to the committee, I won’t.”
But Shinseki said a nationwide review of practices at VA clinics being conducted by the VA’s inspector general should first be completed before any next steps are taken.
“If any [allegations] are substantiated by the inspector general, we will act,” he said. “It is important, however, to allow the inspector general to complete his duty, which is to conduct an objective review and provide us the results.”
That answer didn’t seem to satisfy the many senators who called for immediate actions, including firings when appropriate. Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) indicated that Shinseki himself should go if action isn’t taken soon.
“I want changes, I do not want empty promises,” he said. “If the VA continues on this course, I think it’s ultimately time to look to the top for these changes.”
When asked why he shouldn’t resign right now, Shinseki said he “came here to make things better for veterans,” and said it would be up to President Barack Obama to decide when his “time has been served.”
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said that “heads should roll,” and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who is not a member of the committee, said the department should not wait for the IG report before acting.
“I respect the important role of the inspector general,” McCain said. “But my fellow veterans can’t wait the many months it may take to complete its report.”
“Congress must provide VA administrators with greater abilities to hire and fire those charged with caring for our veterans,” he added.