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VA Secretary Shinseki grilled by Senate panel over failures to provide care

May 15, 2014 at 6:10 PM EDT
Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki appeared in front of a Senate panel to defend his agency against accusations that a V.A. hospital in Phoenix, Arizona, falsified scheduling reports, and that up to 40 veterans died awaiting treatment. Senators on both sides of the aisle pressed Shinseki — under mounting calls to resign — to do more. Gwen Ifill reports.

GWEN IFILL: Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki was in the hot seat on Capitol Hill today facing tough questions from lawmakers investigating allegations that veterans may have died while awaiting treatment at a VA hospital in Phoenix. And some believe there is even more to the story.

GEN. ERIC SHINSEKI, Secretary of Veterans Affairs: Any allegation, any adverse incident like this makes me as — makes me mad as hell.

GWEN IFILL: Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki told a Senate panel that he was angered and saddened by reports of delayed treatment and preventable deaths at VA hospitals.

Shinseki appeared to defend his agency against accusations that a VA hospital in Phoenix falsified scheduling reports and that up to 40 veterans died awaiting treatment.

ERIC SHINSEKI: If any allegations are true, they are completely unacceptable. If any are substantiated by the inspector general, we will act.

GWEN IFILL: Later in the hearing, Acting Inspector General Richard Griffin said an initial investigation is trying to reconcile multiple accounts of questionable deaths.

RICHARD GRIFFIN, Acting Inspector General, Department of Veterans Affairs: The initial list that we were given, we have gone through, and there are only 17 names on that list. On those 17, we didn’t conclude, so far, that the delay caused the death.

GWEN IFILL: In addition to the VA’s internal review, the Obama administration has assigned Rob Nabors, a deputy White House chief of staff, to step in. Shinseki told lawmakers he expects a preliminary report within three weeks to outline the extent of the problem.

In spite of that pledge, senators on both sides of the aisle called on Shinseki to do more.

Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal pressed him to seek the help of the Justice Department.

SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL, D, Conn.: Isn’t there evidence here of criminal wrongdoing, that is, falsifying records, false statements to the federal government? That’s a crime under the…

ERIC SHINSEKI: It should be, yes.

SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: And wouldn’t it be appropriate to ask for assistance from the Federal Bureau of Investigation or some other similar agency, given that the I.G.’s resources are so limited, that the task is so challenging and the need for results is so powerful?

ERIC SHINSEKI: Again, I will work with the I.G. to make that available to him, if that’s his request.

GWEN IFILL: Nevada Republican Dean Heller suggested that Shinseki, faced with evidence of possible malfeasance, simply step down.

SEN. DEAN HELLER, R, Nev.: Would you explain to me after knowing all this information why you shouldn’t resign?

ERIC SHINSEKI: This is not a job. I’m here to accomplish a mission that I think they critically deserve and need. And I intend to continue this mission until I have satisfied either that goal, or I’m told by my commander in chief that my time has been served.

GWEN IFILL: Alaska Democrat Mark Begich wanted to know if Shinseki would hold others accountable if the allegations prove to be accurate.

ERIC SHINSEKI: Without getting ahead of decisions, I would say, manipulation of data, of the truth is serious with me.

SEN. MARK BEGICH, D, Alaska: Would you fire them?

ERIC SHINSEKI: I will do everything I can.

SEN. MARK BEGICH: That’s not the question. I understand…

ERIC SHINSEKI: There is a process here, Senator. Let me not get out ahead of it.

GWEN IFILL: Veterans representatives told the committee quick action must be taken.

Tom Tarantino of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America:

TOM TARANTINO, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America: But we can’t sit around idle while investigation is under way. Veterans need to see the secretary step out in front on this issue and lead. We want a proactive secretary, not a reactive one.

GWEN IFILL: But Disabled American Veterans director Joseph Violante spoke in support of the embattled veterans chief.

JOSEPH VIOLANTE, Disabled American Veterans: We continue to have confidence that the VA led by Secretary Shinseki can and will correct any problems identified or uncovered.

GWEN IFILL: Veterans groups also said access can be approved by providing more funding for veterans care.