Watch LIVE: Senate hearing on VA health care

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Posted on May 14, 2014 at 5:40 PM

Updated Thursday, May 15 at 8:07 AM

Shinseki: VA 'must do better' on patient care

By MATTHEW DALY
Associated Press


WASHINGTON (AP) -- Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki says he is angry and saddened by allegations of treatment delays and preventable deaths at a Phoenix veterans hospital.

"Any adverse event for a veteran within our care is one too many," Shinseki said in prepared testimony for a Senate hearing Thursday on the Phoenix allegations and other problems at the VA. "We can, and we must do better."

Appearing before the panel amid calls from some Republicans and veterans groups to resign, Shinseki vowed to hold employees accountable for any misconduct.

Shinseki has said he welcomes a White House review of his beleaguered department after allegations the Phoenix 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 at the Phoenix facility.

"If allegations about manipulation of appointment scheduling are true, they are completely unacceptable - to veterans, to me and to our dedicated VA employees," Shinseki 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, announced late Wednesday, signals 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 for at least 14 years.

"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."

The American Legion and some congressional Republicans have called for Shinseki to resign, a move he and the White House have resisted. The VA's inspector general is investigating the Phoenix claims, and Shinseki has ordered an audit of VA facilities nationwide to see how they provide access to care.

A White House official said Shinseki requested more help with the review, leading Obama's chief of staff, Denis McDonough, to tap Nabors for the assignment. Shinseki said he welcomed Nabors' help in making sure veterans receive high-caliber health care in a timely fashion.

"While we get to the bottom of what happened in Phoenix, it's clear the VA needs to do more to ensure quality care for our veterans," Obama said in a statement.

The chairman of the Senate committee said there were "serious problems" at the VA but lawmakers must avoid a rush to judgment.

"I don't want to see the VA system undermined," Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., told The Associated Press. "I want to see it improved. I want these problems addressed."

"If people are cooking the books, running second books, that is wrong. That's illegal and we have to deal with it," Sanders said, adding he also was troubled by reports that some veterans have to wait up to six months to see a doctor.

The VA system is the largest health care system in the country, serving nearly 9 million veterans a year at 152 hospitals and more than 1,500 other sites nationwide. Surveys show patients are mostly satisfied with their care. But with such a huge system, "there are going to be problems," Sanders said.

The Phoenix VA Health Care System, which includes a hospital and at least a half-dozen satellite clinics, serves about 80,000 veterans. "It's huge," Sanders said. "Do we have enough doctors and nurses and nurse practitioners at that site? If not, why not?"

Similar questions can be asked about VA sites across the country, Sanders said, calling quality of care an issue "the VA struggles with every day" at its hospitals and clinics nationwide.

"We have a moral obligation to take care of these veterans," he said. "We can do better. We must do better."

The House Veterans Affairs Committee voted last week to subpoena all emails and other records in which Shinseki and other VA officials may have discussed destruction of what the committee called "an alternate or interim waitlist" for veterans seeking care in Phoenix.

A top VA official had told congressional staff last month that the "secret list" referred to in news reports may have been an "interim list" created by the hospital.

Shinseki, a retired four-star Army general, "has done the right thing" by calling for an immediate investigation by the inspector general's office, Sanders said, adding it was premature to call for Shinseki to step down.

"While it might be temporarily satisfying to call for firing someone, it doesn't get us any closer to the truth or solve problems that may exist," Sanders said.

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AP White House Correspondent Julie Pace contributed to this report.

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Follow Matthew Daly on Twitter: http://twitter.com/MatthewDalyWDC

© 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Shinseki to testify before Senate Veterans Affairs Committee
CNN Senior Congressional Producer Ted Barrett

(CNN) – Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki will testify Thursday before the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, CNN has learned.

Shinseki is under fire from some congressional Republicans and veterans groups for the mounting backlog of health care cases at the VA and, specifically, allegations that veterans died while on a secret waiting list at the Phoenix VA hospital.

Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, called Shinseki on Wednesday and asked him to appear, according to Sanders’ spokesman Michael Briggs.

The invitation is in contrast with the Republican-led House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, which voted unanimously Thursday to subpoena the VA secretary for emails and other documents related to the Phoenix allegations. The House subpoena does not require Shinseki to appear before the committee.

The Senate hearing is entitled, “The State of VA Healthcare.” Other witnesses are likely, Briggs said, including a witness Republicans can invite on their own.

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House to subpoena records in VA hospital deaths
Pauline Jelinek, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- A House committee voted Thursday to subpoena records relating to a waiting list at the Phoenix veterans hospital, and officials said Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki had ordered a nationwide audit of access to care that the agency provides.

Meanwhile, Shinseki brushed aside calls for his resignation and got an unexpected political lifeline from House Speaker John Boehner following reports that 40 patients died because of delayed treatment at an agency hospital.

The American Legion and some in Congress have called for Shinseki's ouster following allegations of patient deaths at the Phoenix VA hospital due to delays in care and of a secret list the hospital kept of patients waiting for appointments to hide the delays.

The House Veterans Affairs Committee voted unanimously to subpoena all emails and other records in which Shinseki and other VA officials may have discussed destruction of what the committee called "an alternate or interim waitlist" for veterans seeking care in Phoenix.

A top VA official had told congressional staff last month that the "secret list" referred to in news reports may have been an "interim list" created by the hospital. And the committee had asked the VA on May 1 to answer why it was created, when it was destroyed, who authorized destruction and under what authority.

Shinseki answered in a letter Wednesday that VA employees used "transitory or interim notes ... for reference purposes" as they were moving information to the new electronic waitlist system. Regulations of the National Archives and Records Administration require that such notes be destroyed when they are no longer needed for reference, the VA says.

Dissatisfied with that response, the committee subpoenaed all documents relating to the destruction and gave Shinseki until 9 a.m. May 19 to produce them. The VA said in a statement that it will review the subpoena and respond.

Earlier Thursday, Shinseki told CBS that he sent inspectors to Phoenix immediately after he learned of reports about the deaths. "I take every one of these incidents and allegations seriously, and we're going to go and investigate," he said.

The VA also announced Thursday that Shinseki in recent days had ordered the Veterans Health Administration to do a "a face-to-face" audit over the next several weeks at all clinics at VA medical centers to make sure employees understand VA's policy and the need for continued integrity in managing patient access to care.

And at a Capitol Hill news conference, Boehner, R-Ohio, said: "I'm not ready to join the chorus of people calling on him to step down." He added that there is a "systemic management issue throughout the VA that needs to be addressed."

Shinseki announced last week that three officials at the Phoenix facility have been placed on leave while the VA inspector general investigates.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has long had a seemingly endless backlog and exceedingly long delays for treatment.

Boehner said the House is working on legislation that would give the head of the agency "more flexibility to fire people."

The White House has voiced support for Shinseki amid the calls for his ouster from the American Legion as well as from Republican Sens. Richard Burr of North Carolina, John Cornyn of Texas and Jerry Moran of Kansas. Veterans groups are split on whether he should resign.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said President Barack Obama has full confidence in Shinseki. He said Shinseki shares the president's passion for living up to the commitment that the U.S. has made to its veterans.

Earnest told reporters traveling with Obama in California that the VA has made tremendous progress in reducing the case backlog. He said while the backlog is moving in the right direction, the White House won't be satisfied until it is eliminated.

The VA has acknowledged that 23 patients have died as a result of delayed care in recent years. The VA's Office of Medical Inspector said clerks at a Fort Collins, Colorado, clinic were instructed last year on how to falsify appointment records. Other problems have occurred in Pittsburgh, Atlanta and Augusta, Georgia.

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Associated Press writers David Espo in Washington and Jim Kuhnhenn in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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Shinseki welcomes White House review of VA

By MATTHEW DALY
Associated Press


WASHINGTON (AP) -- Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki says he welcomes a White House review of his beleaguered department if it can help ensure veterans have access to timely, quality health care.

Shinseki was to go before a Senate committee Thursday to address allegations of treatment delays and preventable deaths at a Phoenix veterans hospital.

Shinseki and other witnesses were expected to testify about allegations that the Phoenix 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 at the Phoenix facility.

"If allegations about manipulation of appointment scheduling are true, they are completely unacceptable - to veterans, to me and to our dedicated VA employees," Shinseki 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, announced late Wednesday, signals Obama's growing concern over problems at the VA. Problems similar to those that surfaced in Phoenix have since been reported in other states.

The American Legion and some congressional Republicans have called for Shinseki to resign, a move he and the White House have resisted. The VA's inspector general is investigating the Phoenix claims, and Shinseki has ordered an audit of VA facilities nationwide to see how they provide access to care.

A White House official said Shinseki requested more help with the review, leading Obama's chief of staff, Denis McDonough, to tap Nabors for the assignment. Shinseki said he welcomed Nabors' help in making sure veterans receive high-caliber health care in a timely fashion.

"While we get to the bottom of what happened in Phoenix, it's clear the VA needs to do more to ensure quality care for our veterans," Obama said in a statement.

The chairman of the Senate committee said there were "serious problems" at the VA but lawmakers must avoid a rush to judgment.

"I don't want to see the VA system undermined," Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., told The Associated Press. "I want to see it improved. I want these problems addressed."

"If people are cooking the books, running second books, that is wrong. That's illegal and we have to deal with it," Sanders said, adding he also was troubled by reports that some veterans have to wait up to six months to see a doctor.

The VA system is the largest health care system in the country, serving nearly 9 million veterans a year at 152 hospitals and more than 1,500 other sites nationwide. Surveys show patients are mostly satisfied with their care. But with such a huge system, "there are going to be problems," Sanders said.

The Phoenix VA Health Care System, which includes a hospital and at least a half-dozen satellite clinics, serves about 80,000 veterans. "It's huge," Sanders said. "Do we have enough doctors and nurses and nurse practitioners at that site? If not, why not?"

Similar questions can be asked about VA sites across the country, Sanders said, calling quality of care an issue "the VA struggles with every day" at its hospitals and clinics nationwide.

"We have a moral obligation to take care of these veterans," he said. "We can do better. We must do better."

The House Veterans Affairs Committee voted last week to subpoena all emails and other records in which Shinseki and other VA officials may have discussed destruction of what the committee called "an alternate or interim waitlist" for veterans seeking care in Phoenix.

A top VA official had told congressional staff last month that the "secret list" referred to in news reports may have been an "interim list" created by the hospital.

Shinseki, a retired four-star Army general, "has done the right thing" by calling for an immediate investigation by the inspector general's office, Sanders said, adding it was premature to call for Shinseki to step down.

"While it might be temporarily satisfying to call for firing someone, it doesn't get us any closer to the truth or solve problems that may exist," Sanders said.

---

AP White House Correspondent Julie Pace contributed to this report.

---

Follow Matthew Daly on Twitter: http://twitter.com/MatthewDalyWDC

© 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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