(Updates with Republican legislative plan in seventh paragraph.)
May 29 (Bloomberg) -- Pressure grew for U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign as an internal report found “systemic” scheduling problems that have stymied health care for veterans, and lawmakers held a rare nighttime hearing to vent their frustration with the agency.
“Where in the world is the urgency” to fix the deficiencies? U.S. Representative Jackie Walorski, an Indiana Republican, asked a trio of VA officials at a session that lasted four hours and ended shortly before midnight in Washington. “I have more questions tonight than I did when I walked in here.”
Much of the furor at the House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing was sparked by an inspector general’s report yesterday on allegations that some VA hospitals kept phony waiting lists to hide long delays in providing health care. Richard Griffin, the department’s acting inspector general, wrote that in reviewing 42 VA medical facilities, his office documented repeated instances of waiting lists being manipulated.
At the Phoenix VA facility that first focused widespread attention on the agency, as many as 1,700 veterans were “at risk of being lost or forgotten” when that hospital left them off an official list of patients waiting to see a doctor, according to the report.
The official list showed that veterans waited just 24 days for their first primary-care appointment, the report said. A more complete list -- whose existence was secret and which included more veterans who sought care -- showed the average waiting time was 115 days, according to the report.
The report said a 2010 VA study first disclosed many of the practices that manipulated patient waiting times.
House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, a Florida Republican, is drafting legislation that would require the VA to offer care outside the VA system to veterans who’ve waited 30 days or more for a medical appointment, according to a Republican aide speaking on condition of anonymity. The proposal, which would require reports from the VA to Congress on care provided under the new rules, has support from House Speaker John Boehner, said his spokesman Michael Steel.
Boehner hasn’t called for Shinseki’s resignation, telling reporters today that “the president is the one who should be held accountable.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, said today that she’d be open to supporting Miller’s plan.
Pelosi has resisted calling for Shinseki to resign. “It’s easy to call for somebody at the top to go,” she said. “Is it a solution? Is it an answer? That remains to be seen.”
Yet in a potentially significant development, a growing number of Democrats joined Republican colleagues in urging him to resign.
Democrats now calling for Shinseki to step down include some facing competitive races in November: Senators Mark Udall of Colorado, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Al Franken of Minnesota, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and John Walsh of Montana. They were joined by three House Democrats who won tight races in 2012: Representatives Kyrsten Sinema and Ron Barber of Arizona and Scott Peters of California.
The Veterans for Foreign Wars yesterday said it wanted Shinseki to resign, joining the American Legion. The two groups are the largest U.S. fraternal organizations for veterans.
The inspector general’s report expanded the unfolding scandal that has put the White House on the defensive and spurred the nighttime committee hearing.
Republican and Democratic panel members took turns hammering the three Department of Veterans Affairs officials, who told them that a list of veterans in Phoenix awaiting care had been destroyed in 2012 or 2013.
The panel has subpoenaed documents from the VA related to the list, which includes at least 40 veterans who died while waiting for care, Miller said.
Representative Phil Roe, a Tennessee Republican, at the hearing asked Thomas Lynch, the VA assistant deputy undersecretary for health for clinical operations and management, how he could “look at yourself in the mirror while you’re shaving every morning and not throw up,” given the problems in care for veterans.
Lynch, who recently visited VA facilities in Phoenix, told Roe he is focused on finding solutions to the lengthy waits and that, “I take my job seriously.”
Even so, he said performance measures that rewarded officials for short wait times undermined the agency’s focus on what should have been its priority -- efficiently serving veterans.
“Our performance measures have become our goals, not tools to help us understand where we needed to invest resources,” he said. “We undermined the integrity of our data when we elevated our performance measures to goals.”
He told lawmakers the VA’s health system needed additional capacity and more physicians.
“There’s the potential that we have lost true north,” Lynch said, when asked by Miller if the VA had a suffered from a “failure of leadership.”
The inspector general’s report prompted Miller to call for Shinseki’s resignation. He “is a good man who has served his country honorably, but he has failed to get VA’s health-care system in order despite repeated and frequent warnings from Congress, the Government Accountability Office and the IG,” Miller said in a statement.
“What’s worse, to this day, Shinseki -– in both word and deed -– appears completely oblivious to the severity of the health-care challenges facing the department,” Miller said.
President Barack Obama found the inspector general’s report “extremely troubling,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said yesterday in an e-mailed statement. Carney reiterated Obama’s call last week for the VA to improve care immediately and not wait for investigations to conclude.
Obama has said he will punish any officials responsible for covering up delays. He assigned Rob Nabors, his deputy chief of staff, to conduct a broader review of veterans’ health care to be delivered next month.
Shinseki, a retired U.S. Army four-star general who was wounded in Vietnam, said his department will “aggressively and fully implement” recommendations in the report, including one to take “immediate action” to provide health care to veterans left off official waiting lists.
Democratic Representatives John Barrow of Georgia, Rick Nolan of Minnesota, Joe Garcia of Florida and Nick Rahall of West Virginia previously sought Shinseki’s resignation. All are in election races expected to be competitive this year.
A former Army chief of staff, Shinseki was among Obama’s first choices to head a federal agency. At the time, he was known for being one of the only generals willing to contradict the Bush administration over the Iraq War when he told Congress in 2003 that several hundred thousand troops may be needed to control the country.
Shinseki resigned from the military after then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the prediction was exaggerated. About 1.5 million Americans served in Iraq, including more than 4,400 who died and another 32,200 who were wounded.
Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican who, like Shinseki, is a wounded Vietnam veteran, told CNN yesterday that it’s time for Shinseki “to move on” from the VA post.
The Veterans Health Administration is the nation’s single largest integrated health system, with more than 53,000 independent practitioners providing care to more than 8.3 million veterans each year.
--With assistance from Derek Wallbank, Kathleen Hunter, Roxana Tiron, Angela Greiling Keane and Julie Bykowicz in Washington.