Patience is wearing thin in Congress as lawmakers confront allegations of treatment delays and falsified patient-appointment reports at health centers run by the Veterans Affairs Department.
WASHINGTON — Patience is wearing thin in Congress as lawmakers confront allegations of treatment delays and falsified patient-appointment reports at health centers run by the Veterans Affairs Department. A former clinic director says dozens of veterans died while awaiting treatment at the Phoenix VA hospital.
Reports of problems at VA medical facilities date back at least 14 years, and in each case were followed by promises of action, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said.
"We have come to the point where we need more than good intentions," Murray told VA Secretary Eric Shinseki at a hearing Thursday of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
"What we need from you now is decisive action to restore veterans' confidence in VA, create a culture of transparency and accountability and change these system-wide, yearslong problems," Murray said.
Lawmakers from both parties were equally blunt.
Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., said the VA is "suffering from an absence of public leadership and is foundering as a result."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said the Obama administration "has failed to respond in an effective manner" to reports about the Phoenix VA and other facilities across the country.
"This has created in our veterans community a crisis of confidence toward the VA," McCain said.
Ryan Gallucci, deputy director for national legislative service of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, told the committee that VFW members are outraged and frustrated that nearly a month after the allegations surfaced, "we still do not know who the veterans are who may have died waiting for care."
The VA operates the largest single health care system in the country, serving some 9 million veterans a year. Surveys show that patients are mostly satisfied with their care but that access to it is becoming more of a problem as Vietnam veterans age and increasing numbers of veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars seek treatment for physical and mental health problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder.
"If the system is failing, it is their duty to fix it," Gallucci said of Shinseki and his top aides.
Udall said Shinseki's experience as a senior military leader makes him ideally suited to resolve many of the challenges facing the VA.
"Unfortunately, given evidence of mismanagement on multiple fronts in Colorado and across the nation, it appears that you have either been shielded from the realities on the ground or have decided to keep your distance from critical issues and delegate site visits to others," Udall told Shinseki in a letter.
Shinseki, a retired four-star Army general who has headed the VA since 2009, has promised a preliminary report within three weeks on treatment delays and falsified patient-appointment reports at VA health centers.
The report — and another due in August from the department's inspector general — should give officials a window into complaints about long waitlists and falsified records at the VA's 150 medical centers and 820 community outpatient clinics nationwide, Shinseki said. Separately, President Barack Obama has named deputy White House chief of staff Rob Nabors to review VA health care procedures and policies.