Facing calls to resign, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki said Thursday that he hopes to have a preliminary report within three weeks on how widespread treatment delays and falsified patient scheduling reports are at VA facilities nationwide, following allegations that up to 40 veterans may have died while awaiting treatment at the Phoenix VA center.
WASHINGTON — Facing calls to resign, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki said Thursday that he hopes to have a preliminary report within three weeks on how widespread treatment delays and falsified patient scheduling reports are at VA facilities nationwide, following allegations that up to 40 veterans may have died while awaiting treatment at the Phoenix VA center.
Shinseki resisted calls from a Democratic senator to bring in the Justice Department and FBI for a criminal investigation. Shinseki said he first wanted to see results of the audit and a report on the VA inspector general's office on its investigation of the Phoenix hospital.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said there appears to "solid evidence of wrongdoing within the VA system" that could be criminal.
"It's a pattern and practice, apparently, of manipulating lists and gaming the system — in effect, cooking the books, creating false records," Blumenthal said, adding that the VA's inspector general lacked the proper resources to pursue a criminal investigation.
"The more I learn about the misconduct and impropriety at the VA medical facility, the more concerned I am there's evidence of criminal wrongdoing," said Blumenthal, a former state attorney general and federal prosecutor.
Shinseki said he is "mad as hell" over allegations of treatment delays and preventable deaths at a Phoenix veterans hospital and vowed to hold employees accountable for any misconduct.
"Any adverse event for a veteran within our care is one too many," Shinseki said at a Senate hearing Thursday on the Phoenix allegations and other problems at the VA. "We can, and we must do better."
Shinseki's testimony marked his first extended comments since allegations surfaced last month that the Phoenix VA hospital maintained a secret waiting list to hide lengthy delays for sick veterans. A former clinic director says up to 40 veterans may have died while awaiting treatment.
Some Republicans and veterans groups have called for Shinseki to resign.
Pushing back against sometimes hostile questions, Shinseki said he welcomes a White House review of his beleaguered department. "If allegations about manipulation of appointment scheduling are true, they are completely unacceptable — to veterans, to me and to our dedicated VA employees," he said.
The hearing before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee comes as President Barack Obama has assigned White House deputy chief of staff Rob Nabors to work on a review focused on policies for patient safety rules and the scheduling of patient appointments. The move signaled Obama's growing concern over problems at the VA. Problems similar to those that surfaced in Phoenix have since been reported in other states.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said the hearing "needs to be a wake-up call for the department," noting that outside reviews have outlined problems with wait times and quality of care since at least 2000.
"It's extremely disappointing that the department has repeatedly failed to address wait times for health care," Murray said.
Murray told Shinseki she believes he takes the allegations seriously and wants to do the right thing, "but we have come to the point where we need more than good intentions."
Murray called for Shinseki to take "decisive action to restore veterans' confidence in VA, create a culture of transparency and accountability and to change these system-wide, years-long problems."