VA Secretary Shinseki to testify about alleged cover-ups of treatment delays

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki will testify next week about recent allegations that his department covered up treatment delays for patients who died while waiting for care, according to a congressional panel.

The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee scheduled the hearing for next Thursday, announcing the move shortly after the House Veterans Affairs Committee agreed unanimously on Thursday to subpoena top VA officials for documents related to the growing controversy.

 

The decisions, which increase pressure for the VA to answer for the allegations, came three days after the American Legion called for Shinseki and two other key department officials to resign.

The House panel approved its motion through a unanimous voice vote, marking the first subpoena under the chairmanship of Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.).

“It is unfortunate that we have to come to this decision, but we did not do so without substantial justification,” Miller said before the vote. “The last few weeks have been a model of VA stonewalling, which precipitated the need for a subpoena.”

The chairman said his staff contacted the VA’s Office of Congressional and Legislative Affairs twice last week with no response. He added that the department finally provided a response on Wednesday, but that the answers did not fully answer his questions.

Miller had demanded to know why the VA took eight days to order the preservation of all potential electronic and paper evidence of the alleged cover-up after he requested the action at an April 9 hearing.

The VA said it plans to review the subpoena and respond to it. The department added that it is conducting face-to-face audits nationwide at all clinics for every VA medical center.

“VA takes any allegations about patient care or employee misconduct very seriously,” the department said in a statement. “VA invited the independent VA Office of Inspector General to conduct a thorough and timely review at the VA Phoenix Health Care System, and the department is fully cooperating with that investigation.”

At least two whistleblowers have said the Phoenix medical center developed a “secret waiting list” to hide delays, possibly affecting dozens of patients who died while waiting for care.

Similarly, a review by the VA’s Office of the Medical Inspector found that a department clinic in Fort Collins, Colo., falsified appointment records to give the impression that staff doctors had seen patients within the agency’s goal of 14 days. USA Today first revealed the findings in an article Sunday.

The VA has placed three of its executives on administrative leave over the Phoenix matter. The officials include the medical center’s director, Sharon Helman, as well as its associate director, Lance Robinson, and a third unidentified employee.

The White House indicated Monday that President Obama stands behind Shinseki and is confident that he will take appropriate action in response to the inspector general’s findings once the investigation is complete.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars disagreed Monday with the American Legion’s call for resignations, instead demanding strong action from Shinseki and greater congressional oversight rather than removals.

The American Customer Satisfaction Index shows that the VA health network, which serves more than 8 million veterans, achieved marks equal to or better than those in the private sector in 2013.

Josh Hicks covers the federal government and anchors the Federal Eye blog. He reported for newspapers in the Detroit and Seattle suburbs before joining the Post as a contributor to Glenn Kessler’s Fact Checker blog in 2011.
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