Shinseki and Donovan Testify before Senate Committee on Appropriations on Ending Veterans' Homelessness.
Washington, DC (CBS) - As reports of serious misconduct come in from VA hospitals across the country, lawmakers are prepared to give Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki the grilling of a lifetime on Thursday when he appears before the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee.
Shinseki, a retired four-star Army general who has led the VA since 2009, is prepared to tell the committee about the VA's response so far to reports that at least 40 veterans died while waiting for care at the Phoenix VA Health Care system. The Phoenix facility reportedly worked to cover up patients' long wait times by creating a secret waiting list and later destroying the evidence.
"If these allegations are true, they are completely unacceptable--to Veterans, to me, and to our dedicated VHA employees," Shinseki's prepared opening statement says. If they are substantiated by the VA Office of Inspector General (OIG), the agency's independent watchdog, Shinseki says that "responsible and timely action will be taken."
Shinseki will tell the Senate committee that he's placed three employees from the Phoenix facility on administrative leave at the request of the OIG. However, he will say the OIG advised the VA against providing information to the public that could "potentially compromise" the ongoing investigation.
Lawmakers, however, want to hear about more than just the alleged misconduct in Phoenix. Report after report suggests the same practice of using secret waiting lists may be happening elsewhere.
Germaine Clarno, a VA social worker and employee representative in Chicago, told CBS News' Wyatt Andrews that there are multiple secret waiting lists of veterans kept at the Hines VA Medical Center. Veterans were put on secret waiting lists when they called for appointments, Clarno said, but they wouldn't formally get an appointment booked until one came up within a 14-day window.
The VA grants bonuses to executives and doctors partly based on whether patients are seen within 14 days, giving VA workers incentive to conceal delays in care. Clarno said the purpose of the secret lists was "to make numbers look better for their own recognition and for bonuses."
Meanwhile, a VA employee at the VA Medical Center in Cheyenne, Wyoming, has been placed on administrative leave after CBS News obtained an email showing an employee directing his staff on how to game the appointments system to make it appear as though veterans were being seen within the VA's 14-day directive.
As the stories come out, some lawmakers are demanding investigations and Shinseki's resignation. At the very least, they're demanding answers.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, one of the senators who has called on Shinseki to resign, sent a letter to Shinseki on Tuesday asking him to give "direct, clear answers" in his testimony Thursday to several specific questions.
"According to recent reports, you have ordered a 'face-to-face audit' of all Department of Veterans Affairs clinics," Cornyn wrote. "Can you describe in detail how you intend for this audit to be conducted, its timeline for completion, and what measures are being taken to ensure these audits are conducted in an independent and transparent manner?"
Cornyn also demanded answers about specific claims of misconduct.
"An Austin-based surgeon recently contacted my office to inform me he is not accepting any further subcontracts from the VA due to failures in patient care that he has personally witnessed," Cornyn wrote, relaying how the surgeon informed the VA that a veteran in its care needed immediate chemotherapy to treat laryngeal cancer. "Almost two months later, he followed up on his case only to learn the VA never provided chemotherapy, with no good excuse as to why. The veteran died several days later," Cornyn wrote.
Cornyn wrote that the administration's response to these troubling revelations "has been lethargic and its inaction puzzling."
Other senators have also personally reached out to Shinseki for answers about questionable VA care in their respective states, including Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo.; Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla; and Missouri Sens. Roy Blunt, R, and Claire McCaskill, D.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. - a former prisoner of war in Vietnam - is not a member of the Veterans Affairs Committee, but he will be at Thursday's hearing to make a statement. Last Friday, McCain was the one fielding complaints and hard questions from veterans at a town hall event in Arizona.
Lonnie Ruscito, an Army veteran who served in Vietnam, told McCain that he's been waiting for four years for the VA to rule on whether he qualifies as disabled.
"I am losing my home, I'm spending more money than I have to survive because I can't work," he said. "Thank God Social Security has recognized that I am disabled through an administrative judge, and they've picked up, I assume, part of the responsibility that the VA should be paying for."
Ruscito listed his several medical problems, including PTSD and depression.
"When John came home - McCain - I wept for him, and I was so glad to see him home. But who's weeping for us now?" he asked. Choking up, he continued, "My brothers are dying because the VA does not want to meet their responsibility. Don't send your men to war if you don't want to take care of them. Please don't do that."
Shinseki on Thursday, while acknowledging the reports of misconduct, is also prepared to defend the VA.
"It is important to understand the size and scope of VA care--the largest integrated healthcare delivery system in the United States," his prepared testimony says, noting the VA system conducts approximately 236,000 health care appointments each day and approximately 85 million appointments each year.
"VA provides safe, effective healthcare, equal to or exceeding the industry standard in many areas," his statement says. He notes that the American Customer Satisfaction Index, the nation's only cross-industry measure of customer satisfaction, ranks VA customer satisfaction among the best in the nation--equal to or better than ratings for private sector hospitals.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., the committee chairman, said in a statement, "This committee will do everything it can to review the serious allegations regarding the Phoenix VA and other facilities, but we will not rush to judgment."
Sanders promised more hearings after the OIG completes its independent investigation in Phoenix.
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