Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle were quick to declare that the new details of patient wait times at veterans facilities -- revealed Monday by an audit by the Department of Veterans' Affairs -- underscore the need for quick action to solve the problems.
A bipartisan group of senators renewed calls for a criminal investigation into whether or not VA officials knowingly lied about wait times in order to secure bonuses -- which are distributed, in part, based on those times.
“This report makes it clear that the only people benefiting from our current VA health care system are the bureaucrats who put their own bonuses over veterans’ care," declared Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). “President Obama must direct the FBI to investigate the allegations of criminal misconduct. Our nation’s veterans deserve access to a health care system that puts their needs as the top priority.”
Other senators who backed calls for a criminal investigation included John McCain (R-Ariz.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Mary Landrieu (D-La.), James Inhofe (R-Okla.), Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Joe Manchin III (D-W.V.), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), John Walsh (D-Mont.), John Barrasso (R-Wy.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Dan Coats (R-Ind.), Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), Richard Burr (R-N.C.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), and Kay Hagan (D-N.C.).
“Evidence of secret waiting times, falsification of records, destruction of documents, and other potential criminal wrongdoing has appalled and angered the nation, and imperiled trust and confidence in the Veterans Health Administration. While we commend and appreciate the IG's pursuit of his inquiry, an effective and prompt criminal investigation must inevitably involve the resources of the Department of Justice, including the FBI,” the senators wrote in a letter addressed to Attorney General Eric Holder.
In the audit issued Monday, the VA said more than 57,000 new patients have waited at least 90 days for their first appointments — representing 90 percent of all new patients — and that about 13 percent of VA schedulers indicated they were told to falsify appointment-request dates to give the impression that wait times were shorter than they really were.
The new statistics underscore the contention that the department has widespread, institutional problems with providing patient treatment. Their release comes just over a week after the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, in the midst of the scandal.
“Today’s latest report from the VA points to the work we have ahead of us. Veterans at too many facilities are not receiving the high-quality care that they deserve, and we will not stop working until we have rooted out all the systemic failures plaguing the VA,” said Rep. Mike Michaud, (D-M.E.), the ranking Democrat on the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
Among the first to respond to the new audit were lawmakers from states with facilities with especially long wait times or patient backlogs.
“The VA can and must do better to ensure that those who served our country receive the outstanding care they were promised. I am concerned that new patients are having a difficult time securing appointments, as well as the fact that ongoing investigations are needed at Nevada facilities,” said Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), in a statement. “I will be speaking with the Director of the VA Southern Nevada Healthcare System later today, and look forward to a frank discussion about what more must be done to address Nevada’s veterans’ healthcare concerns.”
In North Carolina, Sen. Kay Hagan (D), who faces one of the toughest reelection bids in the country, sent a letter to acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson to request that he personally visit the Fayetteville VA Medical Center, which some has some of the highest wait times.
“The results of the VA’s report are appalling and disturbing. They require immediate and urgent action by the VA Acting Secretary,” Hagan said. “I am also concerned that several additional VA facilities in North Carolina require further investigation, and I expect full transparency and accountability from the Department of Veterans Affairs as those investigations proceed.”
Meanwhile, Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan), who was the first member of Congress to call for Shinseki's resignation, questioned the validity of the audit and its conclusions. At best, he said, the audit was only scratching the surface.
“If this cursory investigation discovered thousands of veterans who have yet to receive care, I have no doubt these numbers only scratch the surface of the problems plaguing veterans,” Moran said in a statement. “While more than 3,772 VA staff were interviewed, I’d like to know how many veterans themselves — if any — were interviewed. Let’s ask our veterans if they are satisfied with the quality of care that they’re receiving and let them be the judge of whether or not good things are happening at the VA.”