Lawmakers Urge Justice Department Probe of VA Health-Care Delays

May 25, 2014 1:12 pm ET

May 25 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Department of Justice should investigate allegations that delays in health care at military veterans’ hospitals were covered up, lawmakers from both political parties said today.

“Only the Department of Justice and the FBI have the resources, the expertise and the authority to do a prompt and effective criminal investigation of the secret waiting lists, potential destruction of documents, falsification of records -- in effect, the cooking of books and covering up that may have occurred,” Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat who sits on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” program.

A Justice Department investigation would provide an “outside independent authority that can offer accountability and the perception of accountability,” said Blumenthal, a former federal prosecutor and state attorney general.

The Department of Veterans Affairs inspector general is investigating reports that some hospitals kept phony waiting lists designed to hide lengthy delays in providing health care.

President Barack Obama last week promised to punish any officials responsible for covering up delays while saying Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki will keep his job for now, amid calls that he be fired.

“The Department of Justice needs to get involved in this,” Representative Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois Republican and Iraq war veteran, said on CBS. “The president has got to show some intense outrage.”

Urged Shinseki

Blumenthal said that he’s urged Shinseki publicly and privately to request a Justice Department investigation.

The Veterans Affairs department may need more funding after enrolling 2 million veterans in its system since 2009 and setting an “ambitious” goal of scheduling appointments within 14 days, said Senate Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent.

“At the end of the day, when you have 2 million new veterans coming in to the system, some with very difficult and complicated problems, I do think we have to take a hard look and see if we have the resources,” Sanders said on CNN’s “State of the Union” program.

Representative Jeff Miller, a Florida Republican who is chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said problems plaguing the veterans’ health-care system are “an issue of manipulation and mismanagement.”

“If money was the issue, this problem would have been solved a long time ago,” Miller said on CNN. “VA is not using the resources that they’re provided appropriately.”

Inspector General

“We need a top-to-bottom review by the inspector general, system-wide, that points out and gives us an idea about how to proceed,” Senator John Thune, a South Dakota Republican, said on CBS.

Obama faces a political backlash from members of both parties over the issue. The American Legion, one of two major veterans’ organizations, has urged Shinseki’s ouster, as have a number of Republican lawmakers.

Shinseki, 71, promised during his 2009 confirmation hearing to “transform” the Department of Veterans Affairs. A retired four-star general, Shinseki was awarded a Purple Heart and Bronze Star for his military service in Vietnam, in which he lost part of one foot.

Derek Bennett, chief of staff of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, faulted the Obama administration for not doing enough to combat the problem.

‘Take Action’

“At some point we have to stop studying and actually take action,” Bennett said today on “Fox News Sunday.”

While praising plans by the administration to let some veterans get care at private hospitals, Bennett said, “it’s also a step that could have been put in place years ago.”

Bennett stopped short of calling for Shineski’s resignation. Still, he said many veterans in his organization, which claims about 300,000 members, are “outraged and impassioned” over the latest news.

“Day by day, they’re losing confidence in him,” Bennett said of Shinseki.

CNN reported in April that managers at a VA center in Phoenix covered up long wait times for care and that as many as 40 veterans died while medical care was delayed. The report cited a retired VA doctor and other unnamed people.

Veterans Priority

During his 2008 presidential campaign, Obama criticized the VA and vowed to make care for veterans a priority. Last week, he said troubles at the VA have been festering for decades and the system has had to deal with the additional challenges presented by an influx of veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Obama has dispatched Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors to oversee a review of the Phoenix hospital and deliver recommendations by next month.

The Veterans Health Administration provides care to about 6.5 million veterans annually at more than 1,700 hospitals, clinics and other facilities.

The U.S. House of Representatives last week approved a measure that would make it easier for the VA to fire or demote senior officials for poor performance.

--With assistance from David Lerman in Washington.