- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 15, 2014

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki told Congress on Thursday that he’s “mad as hell” about accusations against department hospitals, but vowed to stay on the job as he fended off questions about long wait times and charges that a Phoenix facility fabricated documents to hide its poor performance.

Mr. Shinseki, a disabled veteran himself, said he won’t leave his post until he has completed his mission or President Obama fires him. He sought to assure senators that he is trying to get to the bottom of the growing list of complaints of poor service and large backlogs.

“Any allegation, any adverse incident like this, makes me mad as hell. I could use stronger language here, but in deference to the committee I won’t,” he said at a hearing of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

Lawmakers weren’t assuaged.

Sen. Dean Heller, Nevada Republican, demanded to know whether Mr. Shinseki thought wait times were too long or whether he had control of his department.

“Explain to me after knowing all these things why you shouldn’t resign,” Mr. Heller said.

The secret wait list at the Phoenix facility was revealed at the end of April by Dr. Sam Foote, who recently retired from the VA facility in Phoenix. The doctor said staff members were instructed to make appointment times seem shorter by putting requests on the secret list, then shredding documents and not entering the appointments into the computer until they could find openings within the required 14-day window, CNN reported.

Since the issues at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care System surfaced, whistleblowers have reported problems at other facilities. Brian Turner, a scheduler at a Texas VA facility, said he was instructed to manipulate data and that bonuses for superiors depended on short wait times, Al Jazeera America reported.

With the threat of political damage, Mr. Obama on Wednesday night tapped one of his deputy chiefs of staff, Rob Nabors, to assist in an inquiry. The White House couldn’t say Thursday what the scope or timeline would be for Mr. Nabors’ involvement, though Mr. Shinseki said he was happy to have the help.

“Rob is a fresh set of eyes. He’s the son of a veteran,” he said. “I welcome his assistance.”

Mr. Shinseki said he has made progress on reducing backlogs and improving care since he took the VA post at the start of Mr. Obama’s first term in 2009.

“I came here to make things better for veterans. That was my appointment,” Mr. Shinseki said. “Over the last five years, we’ve done a lot but we’re not done yet. I intend to continue this mission until I have satisfied either that goal or I’m told by the commander in chief that my time has been served.”

He pleaded with lawmakers to let the department’s inspector general complete an investigation into the accusations before demanding accountability. He said he has not seen any widespread evidence of “cooking the books” or manipulating scheduling data.

“I’m not aware, other than a number of isolated cases where there is evidence of that, but the fact that there is evidence in a couple cases behooves us to go take a thorough look,” he said.

He said he aims to have his own internal audit completed in about three weeks, though the inspector general said his review will continue until the late summer.

Some lawmakers said the department should be looking for people to fire. Sen. Mark Begich, Alaska Democrat, said an employee should be fired once proved to be untrustworthy.

“For me, it’s the fundamental issue. If we’re just shuffling them around, we’re not doing anything to improve it,” Mr. Begich said. “Sometimes you’ve got to have some heads roll to get the system to shape up.”

Richard J. Griffin, acting inspector general of the VA, said almost 200 people have worked on his investigation, which is in its third week.

He resisted the idea of committee Chairman Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent, of providing a preliminary report to Congress. Mr. Griffin said releasing information early could jeopardize the outcome of the case, especially as the inspector general works with federal prosecutors to determine whether criminal charges can be pursued.

Mr. Griffin also couldn’t provide the number of veterans who may have died while waiting on a secret list for care, though he did say his office has received reports of problems at other facilities, leading the inspector general to open separate investigations.

While most lawmakers were critical of the department, Mr. Sanders defended the VA and pointed out the good care it provides to veterans.

“There is no question to my mind that VA health care has problems — serious problems. But it is not the case that health care in the rest of America is just wonderful,” said Mr. Sanders, who caucuses with Democrats. “It’s important to put VA health care in context.”

Earlier this week, Mr. Sanders blamed VA woes at least partially on the billionaire Koch brothers.

Sen. Richard M. Burr of North Carolina, the ranking Republican on the committee, said it seems as though another conflict is reported every day in a “national scheduling crisis,” and put the blame on those at the top of the department.

“VA leadership has either failed to connect the dots or failed to address this ongoing crisis that has resulted in patient harm and patient death,” said Mr. Burr, who is one of the lawmakers who has called for Mr. Shinseki to resign.

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