Neglect and Delay May Not Have Caused VA Deaths
Policy + Politics

Neglect and Delay May Not Have Caused VA Deaths

Reuters/Jonathan Earnst

The acting VA inspector general testified Thursday that a preliminary investigation of allegations that dozens of veterans died because of inadequate treatment at a Phoenix, Ariz. VA medical facility has failed to turn up supporting evidence.

The surprise testimony by the inspector general, Richard Griffin, came at the tail end of a lengthy Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing into allegations of treatment delays and cover-ups at VA medical centers that may have led to at least 40 unnecessary deaths.

Griffin told lawmakers that based on a preliminary review of 17 deaths of veterans who had been treated at the Phoenix facility, “We didn’t conclude so far that the delay caused the death.”

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

The secret list was part of an elaborate scheme designed by Veterans Affairs managers in Phoenix who were trying to hide that 1,400 to 1,600 sick veterans were forced to wait months to see a doctor, CNN reported, quoting a recently retired top VA doctor and several high-level sources.

During his appearance before the committee Thursday, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki said he’s “mad as hell” about allegations of treatment delays and cover-ups at VA medical centers that may have led to dozens of unnecessary deaths. But his repeated promises to the Senate committee to swiftly correct any problems documented by an inspector general’s investigation were less than persuasive.

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With veterans, their families and advocacy groups up in arms, Shinseki pledged “responsible and timely action” on the issue. But when Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) asked him to define what he meant, Shinseki said there were limits to what he could do.

“There’s a process to be able to implement those findings,” the former Army four-star general told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. “It will be aggressive and as swift as I can make it. But there is a process here that is not entirely under my control.”

But it was clear many lawmakers were running low on patience and were dissatisfied with many of Shinseki’s bland, bureaucratic responses.

When Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV) asked why Shinseki shouldn’t resign his post as secretary, the VA head said he took the job “to make things better for veterans” and to “provide as much care and benefits for the people I went to war with” and other veterans as he could. “This is not a job. I’m here to accomplish a mission that I think they critically deserve and need.”

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Shinseki's six years of leadership in the Obama administration have come under fire after the reports about the deaths of dozens of veterans at the Phoenix VA facility. Officials may have kept separate record books to hide the problems.

Whistleblowers in other states have raised similar concerns of long waits and other problems with VA care, including in Mississippi, Missouri and Texas, according to The Chicago Tribune. “We still don’t know exactly how many veterans have died or otherwise suffered because of the VA’s assorted failures and abuses, but we do know that it's disgraceful,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) said on the Senate floor Wednesday.

Several GOP lawmakers, including Cornyn and Daniel Dellinger, the national commander of the American Legion, have called for Shinseki’s resignation.

Shinseki testified that the inspector general should have time to complete his investigation. He said these allegations, if true, “are completely unacceptable — to me, to veterans, to the vast majority of VA employees. If any are substantiated by the inspector general, we will act.”

Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-WA) voiced a growing impatience with the VA. “It is unfortunate that these leadership failures have dramatically shaken many veterans’ confidence in the system,” she said, adding, “We need more than good intentions. What we need now is decisive action to restore veterans’ confidence in the VA, to create a culture of transparency and accountability and to change the system-wide years’ long problems.”

President Obama has assigned Rob Nabors, a White House deputy chief of staff, to work temporarily with the VA to help assess its practices and develop recommendations on how veterans’ hospitals can increase access to timely care, the White House said Wednesday, according to the Washington Post.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, said Thursday that the committee should wait for the VA inspector general’s office to finish its investigation before deciding how to fix the alleged problems.

Griffin said he expects to have a final report by August – and raised the possibility of subsequent criminal action. “Our staff is working diligently to determine the facts of what happened in Phoenix and who is accountable,” he told the committee. “While much has been done, much more remains ahead. Be assured, however, that this review is the [inspector general’s office] top priority.”

Sanders added, “If we’re going to do our job in a proper and responsible way, we need to get the facts and not rush to judgment.”

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