Sanders Says VA Hearing on Veteran Deaths Will Wait for IG Report

The chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee said he wants to wait for the results of an inspector general's report before investigating deaths at a Phoenix VA center, despite calls from fellow senators to hold hearings right away.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) replied to a request from Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) to promptly investigate the reports that a secret waiting list held some 1,600 veterans stalled in the system, resulting in at least 40 deaths.

“This article was published after Chairman Miller of the House Veterans Affairs Committee testified during a hearing that he had evidence suggesting that PVAHCS officials manipulated schedules in order to make it appear that patients received appointments faster than they actually did. This raises concern that officials have been misusing the Electronic Waiting List system employed by all VA Health Centers and keeping a non-official list outside of standard VA procedures,” McCain and Flake wrote to Sanders.

They added that “regardless of whether these deaths were caused by mismanagement by PVAHCS officials or intentional manipulation, the allegations appear indicative of broader trends that we have observed regarding the VA’s apparent failure to provide quality healthcare to our veterans.”

Sanders replied to his colleagues in a letter Thursday, stressing that he takes the allegations "very seriously."

“I am troubled when I hear that any veteran may have received substandard service from VA. We, as a nation, have a commitment to provide timely, quality health care to veterans, and I am determined to assist VA in meeting this responsibility," the chairman wrote.

Sanders said the VA's Inspector General "has a multidisciplinary team already on the ground in Phoenix."

“I have urged them to move their investigation forward as quickly as possible. 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.  In other words, we have got to know what the facts are,” he wrote.

“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,” Sanders added. “I look forward to working with you to ensure that VA health care is among the best in the nation – our veterans need and deserve that assurance."

Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), a member of the committee, said the hearing should be called immediately.

“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. 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," Begich said.

He wrote to Sanders that a national policy could be adopted like that in Alaska, where wait lists are contracted out to local providers and out of the VA's hands.

"Through agreements established between the VA and other health care systems, veterans can receive effective health care as soon as possible.  Therefore, I urge a similar policy nationwide,” Begich wrote.

“No veteran’s health care should be placed on hold, especially after their service and sacrifice for our country.  We must hold a hearing on this issue to find the root cause of these issues and ensure the VA acts swiftly to correct this debacle.”