A visibly angry chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee slammed Veterans Affairs officials at a Wednesday hearing for failing to provide all documents related to the VA healthcare scandal, and said his committee would be crawling all over the VA until those documents are provided.
“Until VA understands that we’re deadly serious, you can expect us to be over your shoulder every single day,” Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) told the three VA witnesses.
The top Democrat on the committee was equally upset. “Let me be clear: I’m not happy,” said Rep. Michael Michaud (D-Maine). “I’m not wholly satisfied with the VA responses we’ve received to date.”
The Wednesday evening hearing was convened just hours after the VA’s Office of Inspector General released an interim report saying the VA’s Phoenix office has “systemic” problems that are leading to long wait times for veterans seeking healthcare.
That report led Democrats throughout the day to start calling for the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. Three Senate Democrats came out by Wednesday afternoon to call for Shinseki to step down — Sens. Kay Hagan (N.C.), Mark Udall (Colo.) and John Walsh (Mont.).
Those calls were repeated at the late Wednesday hearing, which Miller said was called to continue pressing VA officials for all related documents related to the scandal. Miller exhibited little patience when he charged the VA of withholding documents, and blasted the department for forcing him to threaten witnesses with subpoenas to make them testify.
“It takes repeated requests and threats of compulsion to get VA to bring their people here,” he said.
Things got testy early when Miller asked Joan Mooney, assistant secretary for Congressional and Legislative Affairs at the VA, why the committee hasn’t received every document it has requested through subpoenas so far. Mooney said the Office of General Counsel believes some of these documents are being held back for reasons related to attorney-client privilege.
As Miller pressed on, Mooney consulted written responses that were prepared for her. That prompted Miller to snap, “Can you say anything without reading your prepared notes?”
Mooney said the committee needs to ask the Office of General Counsel for an answer to his questions, but Miller said that hasn’t worked so far.
“We did ask the office of General Counsel to come brief members last week, and the General Counsel declined,” Miller said. “He said he declined because he didn’t want to brief the members, he wanted to brief the staff.”
When Mooney offered another canned reply, Miller interrupted her: “Veterans died. Get us the answers please.”
Miller then grilled Thomas Lynch, assistant deputy undersecretary for Health for Clinical Operations at VA, about new reports indicating that VA officials in Los Angeles are manipulating data on healthcare wait times. Lynch said his understanding is that some radiology appointments were canceled that were no longer needed.
When Miller asked if every veteran was notified of these cancelations, Lynch said “That is what I was told.”
But Miller scoffed and said he doubted VA officials were telling Lynch the truth.
“Let me give you a little hint,” he said. “The VA won’t tell you the truth. So if you’re relying solely on the management at these facilities to tell you the truth, you’re not gonna get it. You’re just not gonna get it.”
Miller then read from a document that said the canceled appointments had nothing to do with radiology. When Lynch asked for the document to help his research, Miller got up and walked down to the witness table to hand the document over himself.
Miller also asked Lynch about whether VA officials had been creating separate lists of veterans that were seeing wait times over 30 months, and then destroying those lists. Several other Republicans pressed witnesses for information about what they called “secret lists.”
Lynch admitted that interim lists were created for patients with canceled appointments, and then destroyed because they contained personal information.
Lynch also said these lists were destroyed before Miller’s committee started asking for those documents. That led to questions from other committee members, like Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-Fla.), about why these lists would not have been saved as part of the procedural record.
Wednesday’s interim report from the VA’s Inspector General confirmed that the VA has deep problems in Phoenix, and found that VA officials were using multiple lists to juggle veterans’ requests for health care. But it also said investigators were not ready to say these wait times had caused any deaths yet, although others believe the delays contributed to the death of more than 40 veterans.
Specifically, the report found that 1,700 veterans were seeking healthcare in Phoenix, but were not yet on any wait list. That seemed to confirm that the VA has been shuffling veterans around on various lists to make it appear that they aren’t waiting very long for health services.
At the hearing, Lynch was asked if there is a plan to ensure these veterans get healthcare quickly. Lynch said efforts are being made to get the 1,700 veterans care as early as this week.
In a sign of the anger on both sides of the aisle, Rep Dena Titus (D-Nev.) seized on Lynch’s admission that he brought his wife to Phoenix during his first trip there to investigate the VA, and asked why he thought it was acceptable to treat the trip as a “personal holiday.”
Lynch rejected that charge, and said that trip was right around Easter, and that he thought it was “appropriate” to spend time with his wife over that weekend. Lynch said he worked at the VA on that trip all Thursday and Friday, and the following Monday and Tuesday.