WASHINGTON (CNN) — Under withering criticism, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki told a Senate committee on Thursday he was “mad as hell” about allegations of deadly waiting times and coverup at VA hospitals.
“Any allegation, any adverse incident like this makes me mad as hell,” Shinseki said at the first congressional hearing since reports of 40 deaths in Phoenix due to a lack of timely care for American veterans.
Noting an inspector general’s investigation already under way, Shinseki said “we will act” on any substantiated allegation, an assurance that angered senators from both parties who insisted the problems are real and need immediate action.
Asked by Senate Veterans Affairs Committee chairman Sen. Bernie Sanders whether “cooking the books” was a problem in the VA health system, Shinseki said: “I’m not aware, other than in a number of isolated cases” that there was evidence of that. However, Shinseki said the VA should take a “thorough look.”
Overall, Shinseki said, the VA system is good.
Pressure is mounting on President Barack Obama to fire Shinseki. On Wednesday, Obama appointed a top aide to work with the embattled Cabinet secretary to review the situation.
Senators opened Thursday’s hearing by calling for changes to fix scheduling and care problems that they said have been known for more than a year.
“VA senior leadership, including the secretary, should have been aware that the VA is facing a national scheduling crisis,” Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina said, adding that the problem caused “harm and death.”
Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said there was “solid evidence of wrongdoing” in the VA health care system, including “manipulating lists and gaming the system,” and a key question was whether the actions were criminal.
He called for expanding investigations of what is going on, while Sanders urged legislators to wait for an ongoing inspector general’s report in order to get the facts before acting.
Shinseki said he was sad at what has happened, but he didn’t provide much detail about how his department is correcting the problems.
He specifically denied awareness of evidence that VA officials “cooked the books” to cover up lengthy waiting times for care.
The VA Inspector General’s Office, which has launched an independent investigation, has advised the department not to provide information that could compromise their inquiry, Shinseki will say.
Last month, CNN revealed that at least 40 veterans died waiting for appointments at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care system, according to sources inside the hospital and a doctor who worked there. Many of those veterans were placed on a secret waiting list, the sources said.
Since November, CNN has uncovered delays in care at VA facilities across the country where numerous VA staffers have stepped forward to allege dangerously long wait times and efforts by VA officials to cover them up.
The VA has previously admitted that 23 veterans passed away because of delays, and 53 others had adverse health effects at VA facilities across the country. Sources now tell CNN the Office of Inspector General is investigating in six states, including Arizona.
In appointing White House Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors to assist Shinseki in reviewing what happened, Obama said in a statement that he asked Shinseki to review “practices to ensure better access to care.”
“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.
Shinseki, a retired decorated Army general, said he welcomed the perspective of Nabors.
Republicans went after Shinseki at Thursday’s hearing and in the chamber. Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell questioned if the VA problems were part of a “systematic, administration-wide crisis.”
Shinseki has put three employees, including two senior executives, on administrative leave at the request of the Inspector General’s office, but some members of Congress and the American Legion have called for his resignation or dismissal.
The most disturbing and striking problems emerged in Arizona last month as inside sources revealed to CNN details of a secret waiting list for veterans at the Phoenix VA.
After Phoenix, allegations emerge nationwide
But even as the Phoenix VA’s problems have riveted the nation’s attention, numerous whistleblowers from other VA hospitals across the country have stepped forward in recent weeks. They described similar delays in care for veterans and also varying schemes by officials at those facilities to hide the delays — in some cases even falsify records or “cook the books.”
The secret waiting list in Phoenix was part of an elaborate scheme designed by Veterans Affairs managers there who were trying to hide that 1,400 to 1,600 sick veterans were forced to wait months to see a doctor, according to a recently retired top VA doctor and several high-level sources who spoke exclusively to CNN.
“The scheme was deliberately put in place to avoid the VA’s own internal rules,” said Dr. Sam Foote, a 24-year Phoenix VA physician who just retired this year and who appeared in an interview for the first time on CNN last month.
The VA requires its hospitals to provide care to patients in a timely manner, typically within 14 to 30 days.
Phoenix VA officials “developed the secret waiting list,” said Foote. He told CNN that the elaborate scheme in Phoenix involved shredding evidence to hide the long list of veterans waiting for appointments and care. Foote and the other sources said officials at the VA instructed their staff to not actually make doctor’s appointments for veterans within the computer system.
Instead, Foote said, when a veteran is seeking an appointment, “they enter information into the computer and do a screen capture hard copy printout. They then do not save what was put into the computer so there’s no record that you were ever here,” he said.
According to Foote and the sources, the information was gathered on the secret electronic list and then the information that would show when veterans first began waiting for an appointment was actually destroyed.
“That hard copy, if you will, that has the patient demographic information is then taken and placed onto a secret electronic waiting list, and then the data that is on that paper is shredded,” Foote said.
“So the only record that you have ever been there requesting care was on that secret list,” he said. “And they wouldn’t take you off that secret list until you had an appointment time that was less than 14 days so it would give the appearance that they were improving greatly the waiting times, when in fact they were not.”
From the Phoenix VA officials: Denials of a list
Phoenix VA officials denied any knowledge of a secret list, and said they never ordered any staff to hide waiting times. They acknowledged some veterans may have died waiting for care there, but they said they did not have knowledge about why those veterans may have died.
The number of veterans who died recently waiting for care in Phoenix is at least 40, said Foote and the sources. “That’s correct. The number’s actually higher. … I would say that 40, there’s more than that that I know of, but 40’s probably a good number,” said Foote.
Thomas Breen, a Navy veteran, was one of those veterans in Phoenix who died, waiting for care on that secret list, according to Foote and several other inside VA sources who spoke to CNN.
As the veteran urinated blood, Breen’s son, Teddy Barnes-Breen, and daughter-in-law, Sally, rushed him to the Phoenix VA Emergency room last fall. But they were told they would have to wait for any primary care appointment for him, despite a note indicating an “urgent” need on his chart from ER doctors.
No one called from the VA with a primary care appointment. Sally said she and her father-in-law called “numerous times” in an effort to try to get an urgent appointment for him. She said the response they got was less than helpful.
“Well, you know, we have other patients that are critical as well,” Sally said she was told. “It’s a seven-month waiting list. And you’re gonna have to have patience.”
Sally said she kept calling, day after day, from late September to October. She kept up the calls through November. But then she no longer had reason to call.
Thomas Breen died on November 30. The death certificate shows that he died from stage 4 bladder cancer. Months after the initial visit, Sally said she finally did get a call.
“We finally have that appointment. We have a primary for him,’ ” she recalled. “I said, ‘Really, you’re a little too late, sweetheart.’ ”
The director of the Phoenix VA, Sharon Helman, was put on administrative leave by Shinseki two weeks ago, along with two of her top aides. But sources inside the VA in Phoenix tell CNN the wait times and problems are still ongoing there.
As a direct result of allegations by Foote and other insiders in Phoenix, investigators from the VA’s Inspector General’s Office have gone to Phoenix and have been conducting an investigation there for months.
CNN’s ongoing investigation into VA health care
But months before revelations of what happened Phoenix came to light, CNN had reported about other veterans who died or were injured while waiting for care at different VA hospitals.
Last summer, CNN started investigating delays in care and appointment wait times at VA facilities across the country.
Since our first report on delays in care at two VA hospitals in Georgia and South Carolina ran in November of 2013, CNN has continued to uncover delays in care at many facilities across the country. Numerous VA staffers have stepped forward to become whistleblowers and allege dangerously long wait times for veterans and varying efforts to cover them up by officials at the VA.
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