WASHINGTON – The FBI is delving into the scandal involving hospitals operated by the Department of Veterans Affairs, launching the possibility of criminal charges being filed in connection with the ongoing imbroglio.
FBI Director James Comey, appearing before the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, told lawmakers that “our Phoenix office has opened a criminal investigation” into the matter but he declined to elaborate further. Comey didn’t say if additional offices might subsequently get involved.
“We’re working with the VA IG and we’ll follow it wherever the facts take us,” Comey said.
The bureau, which previously had taken a hands-off approach, decided to dig deeper after receiving a request from the Department of Justice. A VA inspector general’s report, issued in May, uncovered evidence that 40 patients died while awaiting care at a Phoenix facility where employees kept a secret list of patients who faced prolonged delays in receiving necessary treatment. Those VA workers are thought to have concealed those wait times in an effort to enhance the facility’s performance.
The report further determined that 1,700 veterans seeking treatment in Phoenix were at risk of being “forgotten or lost.”
Subsequent probes discovered similar problems at other VA medical facilities that serve almost 9 million veterans. The revelations led to the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.
The initial request for a criminal investigation was contained in a letter sent by a bipartisan group of 21 senators to Attorney General Eric Holder earlier this week requesting that the Justice Department take charge of the effort to determine if any federal laws had been broken.
The group, led by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), maintained that DOJ involvement is necessary since the Department of Veterans Affairs is incapable of investigating any potential crimes committed by its own employees.
“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,” the letter said. “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 lawmakers added that a prompt investigation is necessary – “not by August, as the IG has publicly said, but within the next few weeks.”
“This challenge requires resources that only the Department of Justice can provide in developing and assessing evidence, pursuing leads, and initiating active prosecutions aggressively if warranted,” the letter said.
The necessity of a criminal investigation became more urgent earlier this week when an audit released by the Department of Veterans Affairs revealed that more than 57,000 veterans nationwide have been forced to wait 90 days or more for medical appointments at the agency’s facilities. About 64,000 more were included on the agency’s electronic waiting list for doctor appointments they requested. The VA’s stated goal is to arrange appointments within two weeks or less.
The audit scanned more than 730 VA hospitals and clinics and ascertained that supervisors were encouraging clerks to falsify records in 13 percent of cases.
Sloan Gibson, acting secretary of Veterans Affairs, reacted by saying “no veteran should ever have to wait to receive the care they have earned through their service and sacrifice.”
“The Inspector General confirmed we have serious issues when it comes to patient scheduling and access and we have moved immediately to address those issues in Phoenix,” Gibson said. “VA has reached out to all veterans identified in the Office of Inspector General’s interim report to discuss individual medical needs and immediately begin scheduling appointments. Getting this right is our top priority and taking care of the veterans here in Phoenix is a good place to start.”