Embattled Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki
said he won't resign unless asked by the president, responding under aggressive questioning during a Senate hearing on the escalating controversy surrounding allegations of long waits and records doctored to conceal the problem.
Shinseki said the VA
expects to release findings from a national audit of scheduling at its hospitals and clinics within three weeks. The department ordered the face-to-face reviews
in the wake of a whistle-blower's accusations that as many as 40 patients died while waiting for care at a Phoenix veterans' hospital, where employees claim that records were altered to conceal delays in treatment. Allegations of falsifying of documents and some deaths have emerged at other VA facilities around the country.
The new audit did little to appease lawmakers, who expressed frustration throughout the hearing before the Veterans Affairs Committee that the VA appears to have done little in response to numerous reports by the department's inspector general and the Government Accountability Office
raising similar issues.
“We've come to the point where it's no longer about good intentions, we need decisive actions,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.).
Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) called the audit underway an act of “damage control” and said he has heard reports from the field indicating that the reviews are shallow.
“How many reports or allegation do we have to have before there is a different approach at the VA to solve the problem?” Moran said.
The audit includes all VA medical centers and community-based outpatient clinics. More than 200 staff members from the Veterans Integrated Service Networks and Veterans Health Administration central office are conducting the systemwide audit of scheduling practices.
The VA's inspector general, meanwhile, is investigating the Phoenix VA Health Care System and is expected to release a report in August. Shinseki said he does not have the authority to impose a deadline for that report. He also deflected a request from Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) to invite the FBI or Justice Department to investigate the matter, even though the allegations of falsifying and destroying documents could constitute criminal wrongdoing. Shinseki said he would take such a step only at the request of the OIG.
Several lawmakers asked if the results from either the audit or the OIG investigation would lead to terminations, but Shinseki would say only that there would be swift disciplinary action. About 3,000 employees were involuntarily removed from their posts in each of the past two years for poor job performance or conduct, Shinseki said, but he was unable to say if any were let go for altering records to conceal wait times.
Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) asked why Shinseki had yet to offer to resign as a result of these cases given that the secretary said he was ultimately responsible if care was falling short for some veterans.
Shinseki responded that his mission is to improve the quality of healthcare for veterans and that care has indeed improved under his leadership over the past five years. As a result, he said, he will remain in his post until the president tells him it's time for him to go.
VA Undersecretary of Health Robert Petzel said during the hearing that the wait times are not caused by a lack of resources.
The problem, according to Richard Griffin, acting inspector general for the VA, is a lack of focus on healthcare among competing priorities, such as disaster preparedness and homelessness.
“The unexpected deaths that the OIG continues to report on at VA facilities could be avoided if VA would focus first on its core mission to deliver quality healthcare,” Griffin testified. “We believe it is time to review the organizational structure and business rules of VHA to determine if there are changes that would make the delivery of care the priority mission.”Follow Virgil Dickson on Twitter: @MHvdickson