Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki said he'd back an FBI probe into allegations of deadly scheduling delays at a VA hospital in Phoenix, if his agency's inspector general recommends it.
"I will support whatever the IG says," Shinseki said during a brief press conference Thursday afternoon on Capitol Hill, shortly after facing withering criticism from lawmakers over the growing scandal.
After a months-long investigation, CNN last month reported that at least 40 veterans died while waiting to see a doctor at the Phoenix VA, many of whom were placed on a secret waiting list as part of an alleged attempt by the hospital to shield how long it takes to provide care.
"Any allegation, any adverse incident like this makes me mad as hell," Shinseki said during the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing. He said the agency "will act" on any substantiated allegation and hold people accountable if they're found at fault.
The former four-star general and Army chief of staff also vowed to stay on the job at the VA despite calls for his removal. He said he will leave the agency at the end of his appointment – he has no term limit – or "when I'm told by the commander-in-chief" that it's time to go.
"I came here to make things better," he said, when asked why he has not already resigned. "That was my appointment by the president ... I can tell you over the last five years we've done a lot to make it better. We're not done yet."
Acting Inspector General Richard Griffin, who also testified at the hearing, said his staff hasn't seen any evidence that the veterans in question died as a result of not seeing a doctor in time.
"It's one thing to be on a waiting list," he said. "It's another for that to be the cause of death."
But Griffin also cautioned that his team is still poring over records and waiting to receive more documentation, including autopsy reports and medical files from outside hospitals. He said the IG report will be completed by August.
At least one of the veterans' service organizations that also testified called for a criminal probe into the matter.
Rick Weidman, executive director of Vietnam Veterans of America, said his group has asked for state and federal investigations into the Phoenix deaths. The organization "wrote to the attorney general of Arizona last week and to the U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona, to launch a criminal investigation into reckless endangerment, possibly resulting in loss of life," he said.
In response to a question from Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Pennsylvania, Shinseki conceded that if VA staff provided false information about the appointment scheduling process in agency reports, it would probably violate the law.
"It is your responsibility ... to involve the appropriate federal criminal investigation agencies if there is evidence of criminality," Blumenthal said. "And in my opinion there is evidence of giving false statements to the federal government."
The Justice Department, which oversees the FBI, said Tuesday it has no plans yet to investigate the accusations. The White House said late Wednesday it would provide additional staff to the VA's inspector general to help review the case, which Griffin said already involves 180 employees.
Griffin also said allegations of the VA inaccurately reporting patient data aren't new. When the Senate committee looked into the agency's mental health appointments a couple of years ago, the VA said it had an efficiency rate of 95 percent, he said.
"We looked at the exact same data and concluded it was 49 percent," he said. "It's not a new issue and I'm confident when we complete our work in phones it will be the same outcome as in previous reports." He added, "We are not going to rush to judgment at the sacrifice to quality."
The VA in recent years has removed some 3,000 employees, including senior executives, for not inadequately performing their job or violating agency policy, Shinseki said. Some were fired and others were forced to retire, he said. He couldn't say whether any were removed for reporting fraudulent information about patient appointments.
"There are always areas that need improvement," Shinseki said. "I am personally angered and saddened by any adverse consequence that a veteran might experience while in or as a result of our care."
Bryant Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.