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.”
Gibson acknowledged there exists a “leadership and integrity problem” within the upper echelon of administrators at VA healthcare facilities that “can and must be fixed.”
“That breach of integrity is indefensible,” he said. “Veterans must feel safe walking into our VA facilities – they deserve to have full faith in their VA. I will not hold back from asking for help from other agencies, from community partners, from Congress – both sides of the aisle – or from the Veterans Service Organizations, who have been serving veterans for decades. They are all our valuable partners.”
McCain called the determinations in the report “a disgrace.”
“Finding that staff engaged in widespread falsification of data to improve performance metrics and secure bonuses, this audit confirms that VA’s problems stretch far beyond what President Obama last month called an ‘issue of scheduling,’” McCain said. “As the audit states, ‘the overarching environment and culture which allowed this state of practice to take root must be confronted head-on if VA is to evolve to be more capable of adjusting systems, leadership, and resources to meet the needs of Veterans and families.’”
Congress is moving forward on bipartisan action to rectify some of the VA system’s failings. The House on Tuesday unanimously passed a bill prohibiting the awarding of bonuses for any Department of Veterans Affairs employee through 2016. The bonuses, awarded to facilities that met imposed deadlines, are thought to have contributed to the counterfeit appointment reports.
Meanwhile, the Senate on Thursday voted 93-2 on its own reform package, hammered out by McCain and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
That proposal will make it easier for veterans who have encountered delays getting initial visits at VA hospitals to instead visit a nearby physician at the department’s expense. It also provide for the immediate firing of incompetent high-level officials while including an expedited appeals process to prevent the new authority from being abused.
Like the House bill, the Senate measure increases federal spending by hundreds of millions of dollars to hire more doctors and nurses at VA facilities. And it also allows the VA to lease 26 new medical facilities that would expand access to care.
“There are serious problems at the VA now, and they must be addressed now,” Sanders said.
The two bills must still be reconciled but that is not expected to be a problem – the measures are very similar. Legislation containing proposals from both chambers is expected to hit President Obama’s desk before the end of the month.
“By providing more veterans with the flexibility to go to the doctors of their choice for timely care and empowering VA administrators to fire poor-., including allowing veterans who are unable to receive an appointment at a VA facility within the department’s wait-time goals or living 40 miles from a VA facility to seek private career forming employees, the legislative proposal…begins to address many of these serious issues at the VA,” McCain said.