Top VA officials told Congress on Wednesday that they initially thought the secret lists at the Phoenix VA hospital were part of an initiative to reschedule cancelled appointments, not a way to manipulate waiting times.
"I did not think they were secret lists," said Dr. Thomas Lynch, assistant deputy undersecretary for health for clinical operations, of his initial trip to the Phoenix facility.
He testified alongside two other Veterans Affairs officials at a rare evening hearing before the House Veterans' Affairs Committee to get to the bottom of the emerging scandal at a Phoenix VA facility, where an inspector general report released Wednesday found 1,700 veterans were left off official wait lists and never saw a doctor.
The Office of the Inspector General's "interim findings make it all the more urgent for VA to come clean," said Rep. Jeff Miller, Florida Republican and chairman of the committee. "Veterans' health is at sake and I will not stand for a department cover-up."
Dr. Lynch promised each of the 1,700 veterans would be contacted by close of business Friday to see what care they still needed and how to provide it as soon as possible. The department will first try to contact veterans by telephone; if they can't be reached, the VA will send a certified letter, Dr. Lynch said.
Rep. Phil Roe, Tennessee Republican, said he doesn't understand how VA officials live with themselves as they receive huge paychecks but aren't able to provide adequate care to poorer veterans who have no options for healthcare other than the VA.
“I don't understand how you can look in the mirror in the morning and shave, and not throw up,” said the veteran of the Army Medical Corps.
None of the three witnesses were allowed to offer an opening statement at the hearing. They were unable to answer many questions about who was responsible for destruction of documents or why it's taking so long to respond to a committee subpoena for documents relating to the scandal.
Rep. Mike Coffman, Colorado Republican, called for the three witnesses at the hearing to lose their jobs, saying that they were failing to provide accurate information to the committee.
“You are not being forthright in your testimony,” he said. “You are here to serve yourselves and not the men and women who have made extraordinary sacrifices to serve this country.”
When asked about why more patients weren't sent for care at outside facilities, Dr. Lynch said the department should have “fee-based” more people to provide high-quality care while improving its own capabilities.
“We felt our core business was delivery of primary care, we had tried to keep that in VA. In retrospect, I think that was not a wise move,” he said. “We should have provided fee-based services while improving processing so we could provide that care in-house.”
Mr. Miller promised to stay on the VA until the committee got the documents it asked for as part of a subpoena issued earlier this month for any and all documents, emails and notes relating to the Phoenix scandal.
"Until the VA understands that we are deadly serious, you can expect us to be over your shoulder every single day," he said.
The committee has provided 5,500 pages of information, but lawmakers are not satisfied the department searched through its entire records given how uncooperative it has been.
Frustration with the lack of information was bipartisan, and Rep. Michael Michaud, Maine Democrat and the panel's ranking member, said the department needed to comply with the committee's request for documents.
"Let me be clear: I am not happy," he said. "We'll get to the bottom of this, uncover the truth and ensure a solution is implemented to make sure something like this never happens again."
Showing the contentious nature of the hearing, Mr. Miller frequently cut off long-winded answers from the witnesses and asked Joan Mooney, assistant secretary for congressional and legislative affairs, whether she could provide the committee an answer without looking at her prepared notes.
Rep. Dina Titus, Nevada Democrat, criticized Dr. Lynch for taking Easter weekend off to be with his wife and not working 24/7 to fix the issues within the VA.
The House returned to Washington on Wednesday after a five-day vacation for Memorial Day.
Rep. Doug Lamborn, Colorado Republican, called for VA Secretary Eric Shinseki's resignation in the hearing, following a long day of lawmakers asking the retired general to step down.
"Even if Secretary Shinseki didn't know about this, and I don't believe he did, these transgressions should not have happened on his watch," he said.
The IG report prompted Veterans of Foreign Wars to demand the swift firing of VA employees who had any knowledge of “gaming the system,” but did not go so far as to call for the resignation of the secretary.
“There are no second chances when you deal with people’s lives, and that includes everyone in senior leadership who should have known but didn’t, or knew but didn’t care,” William A. Thien, national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said in a statement.
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