Another day, another development on the Veterans Affairs Department wait-list scandal.
FBI Director James Comey on Wednesday told members of the House Judiciary Committee that the bureau's Phoenix office has opened an investigation. The FBI is looking into allegations that VA staffers at its Phoenix facility lied about veterans' wait times for medical care so they could receive a bonus.
"We will follow wherever the facts take us. The Phoenix office is where we opened it, because that was the primary locus of the original allegations. We are working with the VA IG," Comey said, responding to questions on if the FBI will expand its investigation. Multiple resports have found that the manipulation of wait time data at VA facilities is a systemic, nationwide issue.
The decision comes after Richard Griffin, the VA's acting inspector general, told members of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee that it was investigating 69 VA facilities—not including Phoenix—for allegations including criminal wrongdoing.
Griffin added that his office is working with DOJ, but it remains to be seen whether the Justice Department thinks that altering the wait times for veterans to receive care rises to the level of a criminal prosecution.
"Once someone loses his job or gets criminally charged for doing this, it will no longer be a game. And that will be the shot heard around the system," he said.
Bad news for the VA has been piling up. An internal audit released Monday found that approximately 57,000 veterans had been waiting 90 days or more for an appointment, and that more than 63,000 veterans enrolled in VA care who requested an appointment never got one. That follows an interim report last month, which found that 1,700 veterans were kept off waiting lists at the VA's Phoenix facility. The report led to Eric Shinseki's resignation as VA secretary.
Lawmakers from both parties have increasingly called for a criminal investigation into whether VA officials potentially committed fraud by lying about wait times so they could meet performance measures that would—in turn—get them a bonus.
"When you've gone out there and on purpose mislead, knowing that you would get a financial bonus if you did that—which is exactly what's happened—is that fraud? I think that is," Republican Rep. Phil Roe of Tennessee said.
Philip Matkovsky, assistant deputy undersecretary for health for administrative operations, admitted Monday evening that "tying rewards and incentives … to an activity is a mistake."
Since the start of the scandal, the VA has suspended a requirement that veterans receive an appointment within 14 days of making a request, with critics arguing that—while well-intentioned—it was unrealistic.
The FBI was unable to immediately respond to request for comment.
This article appears in the June 12, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.