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Wednesday Night VA Hearing Showcases Lawmakers’ Frustrations (Updated) (Video)
Posted at 4:05 p.m. on May 28
Updated 8:10 p.m. | Calls for the resignation of Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki grew louder on Capitol Hill Wednesday, as the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee attacked the VA for not being forthright with information and an internal audit revealed that problems at a veterans’ medical facility in Phoenix were more extensive than previously reported.
House Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller of Florida said the latest revelations, part of a preliminary inspector general report released Wednesday, raised concerns of criminal misconduct and have convinced him Shinseki should step down or be fired.
“Attorney General Eric Holder should launch a criminal investigation into VA’s widespread scheduling corruption and VA Secretary Eric Shinseki should resign immediately,” Miller said in a statement Wednesday.
On Wednesday night, the Veterans’ Affairs Committee held a hearing to receive testimony from the VA in response to subpoenas the panel put out earlier this month, and Miller didn’t hold back his criticism.
“I will not stand for a department coverup,” Miller said at the outset of the hearing.
The VA responded to the committee’s subpoena Tuesday night. But, Miller said that given the VA’s pattern of “stonewalling” committee requests, he was “not at all convinced” the VA had been forthright in responding to the subpoenas.
The Florida Republican said he knew the VA was withholding at least three documents, citing attorney-client privilege, and Miller hammered the three VA witnesses in a grand show of congressional drama after one witness revealed he had taken notes during an internal investigation of the Phoenix hospital but had not turned over those notes to the committee.
“Until VA understands that we’re deadly serious, you can expect us to be over your shoulder every single day,” Miller said.
At one point, Miller grew so angry over the witnesses’ responses that he stopped one answer by shouting, “Veterans died! Get us answers, please!”
Democrats on the panel also expressed frustration.
“Let me be clear: I am not happy,” said the committee’s ranking Democrat Michael H. Michaud of Maine.
Michaud said while he was not “completely satisfied” with the VA’s response to subpoenas, there did seem to be a recent shift in the VA’s cooperation with the investigation.
By Wednesday evening, after news of the new inspector general’s report had spread, at least 37 House members had called on Shinseki to resign, with 10 of those pleas coming from House Democrats.
In addition to the House criticism, 12 senators have now called on Shinseki to step down, including three Democrats. Among the Republicans calling for Shinseki’s head was Sen. John McCain, who had been holding back on calling for the former four-star general’s resignation.
McCain, in an appearance on CNN, said it was time for Shinseki to “move on.”
Shinseki, in a statement responding to the report, said the new findings were “reprehensible,” and the flood of releases calling for Shinseki’s resignation seemed to back that up.
Miller issued his strongly worded statement shortly after the release of the interim VA inspector general report on patient wait times and VA scheduling practices at the Phoenix veterans’ hospital.
“Today the inspector general confirmed beyond a shadow of a doubt what was becoming more obvious by the day: wait time schemes and data manipulation are systemic throughout VA and are putting veterans at risk in Phoenix and across the country,” Miller said.
In the preliminary, 35-page report the VA inspector general found 1,700 veterans waiting for a preliminary appointment at the medical facility in Phoenix who were not on the official electronic waiting list, confirming the existence of a secret waiting list intended to downplay the time it takes for a veteran to see a doctor.
The Phoenix VA health facility reported an average wait time of 24 days for a veteran’s first doctor’s appointment in fiscal 2013, with 43 percent of those veterans waiting more than 14 days. The report Wednesday, however, claimed the real average wait time was 115 days, with 84 percent of veterans waiting more than 14 days.
That was more than enough to prompt Miller to say Shinseki should resign and Holder should investigate.
Miller said in his statement that he thought Shinseki was a good man who had 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.
“What’s worse,” Miller continued, “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 the VA needed a leader who would take “swift and decisive action” to discipline employees responsible for the mismanagement, negligence and corruption at the department while taking steps to address VA’s accountability.
“Sec. Shinseki has proven time and again he is not that leader,” Miller said. “That’s why it’s time for him to go.”