WASHINGTON -- A bipartisan group of influential senators sent Attorney General Eric Holder a letter Tuesday urging him to launch a criminal investigation of data falsification to cover up long waiting times and other alleged problems at Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals.
In a sign that lawmakers of all political stripes are closing ranks over the burgeoning scandal, the House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill allowing veterans to see private-sector doctors if they wait more than 30 days to obtain VA medical care.
“Unfortunately, as we see the scandal at the VA unfold, we are reminded about the failure of our federal government to live up to the obligations that we have to the veterans who have so honorably served us,” House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters after the vote.
Sens. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, and Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, introduced similar legislation Monday night in the Senate to reform the sprawling medical system that serves almost 9 million vets.
The request for a criminal probe by 21 senators is one of the key demands of several veterans advocacy groups.
“Evidence of secret waiting times, falsification of records, destruction of documents, and other potential criminal wrongdoing has appalled and angered the nation,” the senators wrote to Holder.
Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, senior Republican on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, discussed the scandal at a meeting with Paul Rieckhoff, founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a New York-based advocacy group.
“There’s a new-found urgency in all of this,” Rieckhoff told McClatchy after meeting with Burr. “We’re glad to see it. No one can tell us there hasn’t been criminal action.”
Rieckhoff said he’d also met in recent days with McCain, Sanders, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California and other lawmakers.
“A lot of folks are interested in hearing from us right now,” he said. “We’ve been screaming from the mountaintop about these issues for a decade, but unfortunately most people weren’t listening.”
The senators commended the inspector general of the Department of Veterans Affairs for a May 28 report that found evidence of scheduling abuse at 42 VA hospitals and clinics across the country. But they said the internal probe must now be supplanted by a criminal investigation that includes the FBI.
“Lack of prompt, effective and independent investigation may further undermine trust and confidence by veterans and dissuade them from seeking necessary care,” the senators wrote.
The senators signing the letter were Republicans McCain, Burr, Marco Rubio of Florida, Roger Wicker of Mississippi, John Cornyn of Texas, Jeff Flake of Arizona, Tom Coburn and Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, Dan Coats of Indiana and John Barrasso of Wyoming; and Democrats Dick Durbin of Illinois, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Tom Udall of New Mexico, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Jon Tester and John Walsh of Montana, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.
The senators launched their initiative a day after the release of a VA audit ordered last month by former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, who resigned May 31 over the scandal. The audit of 731 VA hospitals and clinics found that 57,436 veterans have been waiting more than 90 days for an initial medical appointment.
Schedulers and other VA employees told auditors that supervisors had instructed them to enter phony dates in the appointment system in an effort to cover up long waiting times for vets seeking medical care.
The audit flagged 112 hospitals and clinics for further review.
In response to the audit, Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson froze performance bonuses and eliminated a 14-day target for appointments that auditors found was unrealistic and created pressure to falsify waiting time data.
Lawmakers from both parties are vying to introduce and sponsor bills reforming the VA’s antiquated scheduling system and removing civil service rules that make it difficult to remove hospital or clinic administrators.
At one of the first in what promises to be a rash of congressional hearings on the scandal, House members Monday night criticized a top VA administrator at a House Veterans’ Affairs Committee session that lasted four hours.
Lawmakers asked Philip Matkovsky, head of administrative operations for the Veterans Health Administration, what had happened to nearly a decade worth of funding to improve electronic scheduling system for medical appointments.
“Where the heck is the billions of dollars _ that’s ‘billions,’ with a B _ that Congress has spent on IT upgrades?” Rep. Jackie Walorski, an Indiana Republican, asked Matkovsky. “Do you have anything tangible to show?”
Matkovsky acknowledged that it had been a mistake to tie hospital and clinic administrators’ bonuses to short waiting times, an incentive that apparently prompted many to falsify data for financial gain.
Rep. Jeff Miller, a Florida Republican who chairs the committee, asked how it was possible that some top administrators still hold their jobs at the Phoenix VA hospital, where the problems first came to light late last year.
“Why can’t the people at the Department of Veterans Affairs fire people who will not do their job?” Miller said at the hearing.
David Lightman of the Washington Bureau contributed.
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