The head of the House Veterans Affairs Committee says investigators looking into data manipulation and delayed care at veterans hospitals also need to find out who at the top may have known about the problems before whistleblower reports prompted action.
So far the emphasis has been on what schedulers, managers and executives out in the field may have known and done, but Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida, wants investigators to look at VA headquarters, too.
"Chief among the VA scandal’s unanswered questions are whether VA officials in Washington knew about widespread wait time fraud and when they knew it," Miller told Military.com on Thursday.
There are about 100 ongoing investigations by the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Justice Department and the FBI into improper appointments scheduling across the country. At the VA Medical Center in Phoenix, Arizona, VA investigators confirmed that 35 veterans on a secret waiting list died before getting an appointment, though the VA’s Office of the Inspector General has refused to say that the deaths were directly caused by delayed care.
Former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, in the days leading up to his resignation May 30, said he had put too much trust in people and was led to believe that incidents of secret wait lists, manipulated data and lengthy wait times for care were isolated cases, when in fact the problem was systemic.
VA Secretary Bob McDonald said last week he is not focused on what people at VA headquarters may have known leading up to the scandal, saying he is “here to improve the future, learning from the past. I'm not here to spend a lot of time dwelling on the past."
Miller said the VA owes it to veterans and U.S. taxpayers to determine just who at the senior levels of the department knew about the problems but glossed over them.
"Those who surrounded [Shinseki] shielded him from crucial facts and hid bad news reports," Miller said. "We can’t allow other VA secretaries to suffer the same fate."
On Wednesday, Miller clashed with VA Acting Inspector General Richard Griffin over the IG’s final report on the wait-times scandal.
Miller and other lawmakers are concerned that higher ups in the VA pressured Griffin’s office to insert a line saying the IG could not conclusively say that the delays in care because of manipulated appointment times caused any of veteran deaths in Phoenix.
Griffin said that line was put in to make it clear the IG is not able to draw conclusions about causes of death, and that such a finding would have to rest with the VA, the Justice Department and the courts.
During the hearing Dr. John D. Daigh Jr., assistant IG or healthcare at the VA, told the committee he is willing to say that the delayed care contributed to patient deaths.
Dr. Sam Foote, who retired from the Phoenix VA facility and was one of the chief whistleblowers in exposing the secret wait list and deaths, called the IG’s final report a whitewash.
-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at email@example.com.