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Congress, VA face off at hearing

House members got little new information from VA officials at a Wednesday night hearing.
Lynch, Mooney and Huff are sworn in to testify before a House Veterans' Affairs Committee hearing on the Phoenix VA Health Care System wait list, on Capitol Hill in Washington
U.S. Department of Veterans' Affairs (VA) Assistant Deputy Undersecretary for Health and Clinical Operations Thomas Lynch (L-R), VA Assistant Secretary for Congressional and Legislative Affairs Joan Mooney and VA Office of Congressional and Legislative Affairs congressional relations officer Michael Huff are sworn in to testify on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 28, 2014.

Members of Congress grilled three VA officials Wednesday night on the embattled agency’s response to a subpoena related to the ongoing waiting list-related scandal at Phoenix’s VA hospital.

The hearing took place the same day the VA’s Office of the Inspector General released its interim report that confirmed that veterans’ care was negatively affected by what it called a “convoluted” and improper scheduling system.

Rep. Jeff Miller, the Chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee accused the three officials of stonewalling the committee in its efforts to get documents related to an ongoing investigation into the Phoenix VA.

“I’ll give you a little hint: The VA won’t tell you the truth,” Miller said during an exchange with Thomas Lynch, Assistant Deputy Under Secretary for Health for Clinical Operations and Management at the Veterans Health Administration.

Miller and the committee initially subpoenaed records on May 8 and set a deadline of May 19, but Miller was unsatisfied with the response and ordered them to appear at a hearing Wednesday. The VA’s response, Miller said at the hearing, was an attempt to “prevent this committee from doing its job.”

In Phoenix, the VA inspector general’s report found, 1,700 veterans, “were and continue to be at risk of being forgotten or lost in Phoenix HCS’s convoluted scheduling process.” Those 1,700 veterans were not on any official waiting list. Another 1,400 veterans were on an official list but were still subject to wait times longer than the 14 day limit set by law.

The report also said that investigators had heard allegations of a range of misconduct, from sexual harassment and bullying to inappropriate hiring decisions. Since beginning its inquiry in April, the inspector general’s office has expanded its investigation to 42 different facilities across the country.

Lynch, who traveled to Phoenix three times and who investigated the situation there, said that the Inspector General’s report did not come as a surprise to him.

While skepticism about the VA was a bipartisan affair at the hearing, the harshest questions and statements came from Republicans. Rep. Doug Lamborn of Colorado called for Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign. “Even if the secretary didn’t know in advance, the violations should not have happened on his watch,” he said.

Some Senators have called for criminal investigations. Connecticut Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal said in a statement that the report “heightens the need for a prompt and effective criminal investigation.” Texas Republican John Cornyn said Wednesday that the FBI should get involved, a sentiment echoed by Arizona Republicans John McCain and Jeff Flake. 

While most Democrats are calling for further investigations in the wake of Wednesday’s report, some more conservative members of the party, most of them facing tough election battles this year, have added their voices to the chorus demanding Shinseki’s resignation. Rep. Scott Peters of California and Rep. Bruce Bailey of Iowa joined Georgia lawmakers and others in calling for Shinseki to step down.

Late Wednesday, New Hampshire Rep. Carol Shea-Porter added her name to the growing list of Democratic members of Congress calling for Shinseki's resignation.

"General Shinseki is a great man and a war hero, and I am grateful for his long service to our country and to our veterans," Shea-Porter said in a statement. "However, after seeing the report released today, I believe Secretary Shinseki should step down."

On the Democratic side of the Senate, Mark Udall of Colorado, John Walsh of Montana, Al Franken of Minnesota, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire were all asking for a change in VA leadership by Wednesday night. Udall said in a tweet that "in light of IG report and systemic issues," Shinseki "must step down." Walsh, who is in a tough race for re-election, echoed Udall on Wednesday evening. Walsh is also the only Iraq War veteran serving in the Senate. 

The inspector general's report recommended that Shinseki "take immediate action" to help veterans affected by the Phoenix scandal. It also recommended a nationwide review of veterans on waiting lists, "to ensure that veterans are seen in an appropriate time, given their clinical condition."

The investigators also noted that the issues behind the current uproar have existed for many years, something veterans groups have said since the scandal surfaced. Since 2005, the VA’s inspector general’s office has released 18 reports detailing delays in treatment for veterans seeking care through the VA.