In an extremely rare move, the House Veterans Affairs Committee voted to slap VA officials with subpoenas amid investigations into whether veterans died while waiting for primary health care.
The Republican-led committee voted unanimously to issue subpoenas for all emails and correspondence between VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and other top VA officials dating back to April 9.
“This is a historic vote,” Committee Chairman Jeff Miller said Thursday, adding that the committee has only issued subpoenas against the VA one other time its history. “I trust the VA will not further ignore the request that this committee has made."
Miller is one of a handful of Republican lawmakers to join major veterans groups in calling on Shinseki to resign over allegations that as many as 40 veterans died while waiting for primary care at the Phoenix VA Hospital System. Whistleblowers claim hospital officials kept two sets of books to shield excessively long wait times for doctor appointments.
“We have over the past years asked the VA for information that has not been forthcoming,” said Ranking Member Mike Michaud of Maine. “Frustrations remain high among committee members.”
Shinseki’s supporters argue such calls for resignation are premature. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday the president “remains confident” in Shinseki, who joined the Obama administration at the start of the president’s first term in office. Other veterans groups feel the VA secretary needs time to get to the bottom of the scandal.
“It’s a hard job [that] he has,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid told MSNBC in Shinseki’s defense. “Firing this good man is not going to make it any better.”
The embattled secretary is expected to testify before the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs next Thursday.
"Secretary Shinseki has done the right thing by calling for an immediate investigation of those allegations by the independent Office of Inspector General," Sen. Bernie Sanders, chairman of the committee, said in a statement. "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."
Shinseki has resisted calls to resign as the VA’s inspector general investigates the allegations. “I serve at the pleasure of the president,” Shinseki told NBC News on Wednesday in an interview defending his record. “I offer my condolences to these families for anyone who’s lost a veteran, any unexpected death in one of our facilities.”
Other similar allegations of needless veteran deaths are sprouting up across the country, suggesting a larger institutional problem that's not limited to a single region. Other instances of delays in care have been reported in Colorado, South Carolina, Georgia and Texas. The department also revealed last month that at least 23 veteran deaths were linked to delayed cancer screenings over the past several years.
Earlier this week the American Legion, the largest veterans group with over 2.4 million members, was joined by the Concerned Veterans of America in calling on Shinseki to step down over the department’s handling of the investigation.
“It’s not something we do lightly. But we do so today because it is our responsibility as advocate for the men and women who have worn this nation’s uniform,” said Daniel M. Dellinger, national commander of the American Legion.