Shinseki 'mad as hell' over veteran deaths, delayed treatment, but won't resign

Friday - 5/16/2014, 3:40am EDT

Jared Serbu

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The Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki said he is angry and saddened over reports that delayed medical care may have contributed to the deaths of dozens of veterans, but he told Congress Thursday he has no plans to resign his post until and unless the President tells him it's time to go.

Shinseki's testimony before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Thursday was his first public remarks on Capitol Hill since the publication of news reports alleging that as many as 40 veterans enrolled at the Phoenix VA medical center died while they were waiting to get doctor's appointments and that hospital staff maintained an off-the-books appointment list designed to obscure long wait times at the facility.

In his remarks, Shinseki revealed little new information about the veteran deaths in Phoenix and elsewhere, other than to say investigations are ongoing.

"Any adverse incident like this makes me mad as hell, but at the same time it also saddens me," Shinseki said. "I understand that out of these adverse events, a veteran's family is dealing with the aftermath. I'm committed to taking all actions necessary to identify what the issues are to fix them and to strengthen veterans' trust in VA health care."

An ongoing internal audit

The department's inspector general deployed a team of 185 people to Phoenix to investigate the case, which originated from whistleblower complaints from several current and former VA employees there. Because of the complexity of the investigation, the OIG estimates it will take until August before it issues a final report.

At the same time, Shinseki said VA is conducting an internal review of all its medical facilities to determine how widespread the practice of manipulating wait time statistics is.

"We need to ensure full compliance with our scheduling policies, and as we've begun that, we've already received reports where compliance is under question. We've asked the IG to also take a look at a number of those cases," he said.

Shinseki said VA's internal audit is examining the health care system's largest facilities this week, and he told senators he expects to be able to provide them with the preliminary results within three weeks. He also pledged accountability for any VA staff who are found to have cooked the books on wait times, but not until the IG review is finished.

"If any of this is substantiated, we will act," he said. "It is important, however, to allow the inspector general to complete his duty, which is to conduct an objective review and provide us the results."

Allegations of a secret waiting list

Acting VA Inspector General Richard Griffin also testified Thursday. At his request, the director of the Phoenix VA hospital and two other Arizona VA officials are on administrative leave.

"This was done because of the gravity of the allegations and to ensure the cooperation of the Phoenix staff, some of whom expressed concern about talking to the OIG team," Griffin said.

Griffin did not reveal any explicit details about the Phoenix investigation, but he cautioned that none of the evidence thus far has drawn a direct connection between delayed care and the deaths of the veterans who were awaiting medical appointments.

"It's one thing to be on a waiting list, and it's another thing to conclude that as a result of being on the waiting list that's the cause of death, depending on what your illness might have been at the beginning," he said.

Griffin, however, suggested that the alleged existence of a secret waiting list which operated outside of VA policies may extend beyond an administrative matter. His office, he said, is looking into possible criminal violations.

"Our own criminal investigators, including IT forensic experts, are assisting the team," he said. "We are working with federal prosecutors from the United States Attorney's Office for the District of Arizona and the public integrity section of the Department of Justice here in Washington so that we can determine any conduct that we discover that merits criminal prosecution."

Griffin said in the weeks since the Phoenix case was publicized in national media, the IG's office has received additional reports of manipulated waiting times at other VA facilities across the country via its own hotline service, members of Congress and media reports. The office has launched separate investigations at several other VA hospitals, though Griffin did not specify how many probes are currently underway, nor their locations.

But Debra Draper, the director for health care issues at the Government Accountability Office, pointed out that the practice of gaming the system in order to make a given VA health care facility's statistics appear better on paper than they are in reality isn't exactly a new development. GAO last reported on the problem in a 2012 report that also examined long wait times at VA facilities.