With his job on the line, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki said he was “personally angered and saddened” by an alleged cover-up within the department that may have cost the lives of 40 veterans.
“VA takes any allegations about patient care or employee misconduct very seriously,” Shinseki said in his prepared remarks before the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Thursday. “Any adverse event for a veteran within our care is one too many.”
The department is under fire after leaks blew the lid on an alleged cover-up scandal in the Phoenix VA Health Care System. According to whistleblowers, hospital officials kept a "secret list" that tracked appointments to shield excessively long wait times for veterans seeking primary care. As many as 40 veteran deaths may be linked to the delays, they claim.
“If these allegations are true, they are completely unacceptable,” Shinseki said.
But the four-star retired Army general said Thursday that he’s not going anywhere.
“I intend to continue this mission until I have satisfied either that goal or I am told by the commander in chief that my time has been served,” he said.
Ahead of the hearing, President Obama tasked his White House deputy chief of staff Rob Nabors to review the VA’s policies on scheduling appointments and patient safety rules, a signal of the president’s growing concern over the controversy, the Associated Press reported.
The VA ordered an Inspector General (IG) to investigate the allegations in Phoenix, and placed three officials in the VA hospital system there on administrative leave amid the ongoing investigation.
Vermont Democratic Sen. Bernie Sanders, chairman of Senate committee, urged caution against jumping to conclusions before the results of the IG investigation are released.
“If we’re going to do our job in a proper and responsible way we need to get the facts and not rush to judgment,” Sanders said. “One of the concerns that I have to be very honest is that there has been a little bit of a rush to judgment.”
But the incident may not be isolated. Other allegations 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.
“It’s extremely disappointing that the department has repeatedly failed to address wait times for health care,” Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat, said at the hearing Thursday. “These recent allegations are not new issues -- they are system-wide problems and they grow more concerning by the day.”
Veterans groups have been divided in calls for Shinseki to step down. The American Legion, the nation’s largest veterans group, was the first to demand that the VA chief resign, while the Disabled American Veterans said the group would hold back until the end of the investigation.
"We need to see impassioned and aggressive action from the secretary. And it's not just going to be about today, it's going to be about what he does tomorrow," Tom Tarantino of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America said at a rally Thursday morning before he was set to testify at the hearing.