WASHINGTON — When the claims backlog at the Veterans Affairs Administration hovered at around 900,000 veterans waiting 125 days or more for processing, Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) called it “simply not acceptable for any veteran to wait many months or years for the benefits that they are entitled to receive.”
“This is a priority for the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. We will do everything we can to make sure that a broken claims system is fixed,” Sanders said in February 2013, vowing to quickly hold a hearing to get the wheels turning on reform.
“It is my view, and I believe the view of every member of this committee, that when men and women put their lives on the line defending this country, they must be treated with respect and dignity when they return,” the chairman said at a March 13, 2013, hearing. “Not with red tape and bureaucracy, not with, in some cases, years of delay.”
When Nevada lawmakers lobbied the VA in April 2013 to get their constituents’ backlogged claims moving, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) called it “a shame” that veterans “have to endure extensive waiting times to receive the services they require.”
Indeed, veterans affairs has traditionally been a cause without party on Capitol Hill, a powerful commitment from both sides of the aisle to rally behind the men and women who have served this country.
As the news surfaced on CNN late last month that up to 40 veterans had died waiting for appointments at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care system, patients allegedly added to a secret waiting list to cover the VA’s tracks, some lawmakers cried out for immediate congressional oversight. Lives were at stake, they maintain, and emergency hearings should be convened to prevent any more veterans from falling through the cracks of a potentially plodding internal investigation.
The sense of urgency and unity that surrounded the claims backlog has been harder to find in this latest scandal, stoking disturbing questions about whether the administration is hoping or even encouraging that the crisis take an extended rest on the back burner.
“Dozens of veterans may have died while waiting for care on a secret list devised by VA bureaucrats to conceal actual wait times. Similar cases of deception are popping up around the country and most recently in my home state of Texas,” Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) told PJM today.
“Meanwhile, the president has called for urgent action on climate change while he jets to Bel Air and Beverly Hills for fundraisers and Harry Reid continues his obsession with the Koch brothers,” Cornyn added. “Where is the urgency while our veterans are neglected?”
CNN obtained internal emails revealing that top officials at the VA in Phoenix knew about and defended the practice of concealing 1,400 to 1,600 ill veterans who were forced to wait for months to see a physician. A retired doctor there told the network that the procedure was in place to circumvent VA rules about wait times.
“Congress should conduct emergency hearings to get the information necessary to fully root out these problems and President Obama should immediately designate an official responsible for implementing rapid changes,” Cornyn said in the wake of the “heartbreaking and infuriating” report. “This is not a time for more cover-ups, it is time for accountability.”
House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) noted that weeks ago he called for a “complete and thorough inspector general investigation into delays in VA care,” stressing that the committee had already amassed evidence in its own investigation showing that patient schedules had been manipulated in order to make it appear that appointments were received faster than they actually were.
“If proven true, these charges will only add to the growing pattern of preventable veteran deaths and patient safety incidents at VA medical centers across the country that are united by one common theme: VA’s extreme reluctance to hold its employees and executives accountable,” Miller said in a statement at the end of April. “In fact, if you look at recent VA preventable deaths linked to mismanagement – in Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Columbia, S.C., Augusta, Ga., and Memphis, Tenn. – department executives who presided over mismanagement are more likely to have received a bonus or glowing performance review than any sort of punishment.”
Arizona GOP Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake also called on Sanders to launch an investigation and hearings on the report. The chairman, though, said he would wait for the VA’s inspector general to probe the case first.
“I am sure that you will agree with me that an objective inquiry into these allegations is necessary before holding a hearing on this issue,” Sanders told his colleagues. “…Once the IG collects additional information, we can engage in a more informed deliberation on the allegations in Phoenix. You have requested a hearing on this issue and I will commit to holding a hearing once the IG’s inquiry is complete.”
One Democrat on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee wasn’t satisfied with that.
“As a government, we should be ashamed of the poor administration of care for our sick veterans who sacrificed – putting their own lives on the line – for our country,” Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) said. “I am calling for an immediate hearing to investigate these practices and make sure that no veteran ever has to endure a life-threatening wait like those in Arizona have. Our veteran community and their families deserve justice.”
Bipartisan concern was also seen in the House, where Arizona Reps. Matt Salmon (R) and Kyrsten Sinema (D) offered an amendment to the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies Appropriations Act of 2015 that would give $1 million additional funding to the OIG to provide oversight and accountability at the Veterans Administration.
Sinema called the reports of wait-list deaths “immoral, unconscionable, irresponsible and un-American.”
“We need answers in Phoenix but this is not an isolated incident. Stories of health complications and deaths because of wait times have surfaced in other places around the country including South Carolina and Texas,” she said. “That this is happening to the good people who have defended our flag and our freedoms is beyond the pale.”
Last week, Cornyn called on President Obama to appoint a special investigator to probe the waitlist deaths, noting on the Senate floor that “the Department of Veterans Affairs has repeatedly and outrageously failed to uphold its own commitment to America’s armed forces and our veterans.”
President Obama said he’d told Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to look into the matter, saying such an internal probe is “consistent with what has been my rock-solid commitment to make sure that our veterans are cared for.”
Senators are now trying to ensure that they’ll get some sort of status updates from the VA’s inspector general on the progress of the investigation. “We are certain we all agree it is important to conduct an honest and objective inquiry into these allegations,” Flake and McCain wrote in a request last week. “Given their stark and disturbing nature and the need to ensure the prevention of any future consequences, it is our hope that this investigation and the subsequent oversight by the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee will occur in a timely fashion.”
Calls for a prompt investigation escalated this week into demands that Shinseki step down. “Veterans are waiting for action and yet the VA continues to operate in the same old bureaucratic fashion, settling for mediocrity and continued disservice to our nation’s heroes,” Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) said in a floor speech. “There’s a difference in wanting change and leading it to happen.”
The American Legion and Concerned Veterans for America echoed that sentiment, with Daniel M. Dellinger, national commander of the Legion, stressing that asking the VA secretary to step down is “not something we do lightly.”
“We need a point person, appointed by the White House to get to the bottom of this, and we need the Majority Leader to hold emergency committee meetings to get to the bottom of this and to stop it as soon as possible,” Cornyn said outside a GOP policy luncheon Tuesday. “But I agree with the American Legion that General Shinseki’s time as secretary of Veterans Affairs has come to an end, and he needs to step down. The president needs to find a new leader to lead this organization out of the wilderness, and back to providing the service our veterans deserve.”
Sanders again came to the aid of the administration, saying the calls for Shinseki’s resignation were premature.
“Serious allegations have been made regarding waiting lists at the Phoenix VA. Secretary Shinseki has done the right thing by calling for an immediate investigation of those allegations by the independent Office of Inspector General. I have promised to hold hearings on this issue as soon as we have the facts,” Sanders said in a statement Monday evening. “While it might be temporarily satisfying to call for firing someone, it doesn’t get us any closer to the truth or solve problems that may exist.”
And speaking with reporters outside of a policy luncheon on Tuesday, Reid was dismissive of the waitlist allegations — “whether there’s substance to it or not, I don’t know, but it certainly doesn’t call for the general to resign” — and backed Shinseki as “a fine man.”
“The issue that came up in Phoenix, these are allegations and there will be a complete investigation about what’s gone on,” Reid said, adding that Sanders gave a talk to the Democratic caucus behind closed doors about the “great work” Shinseki has done leading the VA.
Shinseki said he has no intention of stepping down, and the White House indicated they’d like to see the scandal put to bed as soon as possible.
“As the president said last week, we take the allegations around the Phoenix situation very seriously. That’s why he immediately directed Secretary Shinseki to investigate,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Tuesday. “And Secretary Shinseki has also invited the independent Veterans Affairs Office of the Inspector General to conduct a comprehensive review.”
“We must ensure that our nation’s veterans get the benefits and the services that they deserve and they have earned,” Carney added. “The president remains confident in Secretary Shinseki’s ability to lead the department and to take appropriate action based on the IG’s findings.”
Another reporter asked why Shinseki won’t respond to requests for media interviews — including CNN’s requests dating back to November.
“You’re asking me for an interview?” Carney quipped. “I would refer you to the department for the director’s schedule — sorry, the secretary’s schedule.”