Members of Congress are not happy with the Veterans Affairs Department right now. And the man who runs it says he isn’t either.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki testified before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Thursday morning about reports that at least 40 veterans died while waiting for medical care at a Phoenix VA hospital, and that facilities across the country use secret lists to mask long waiting periods for doctors’ appointments.
“Any allegation, any adverse incidents like this, makes me mad as hell,” Shinseki told the committee. “I could use stronger language here, Mr. Chairman, but in deference to the committee, I won’t.”
Operational dysfunction at the Veterans Affairs Department — which switched to a computer filing system just last year — is not new. It has has long been criticized for its massive backlog of records and its long waiting periods for medical appointments. More than 300,000 claims to the department have been pending for 125 days or more.
The Office of the Inspector General has opened an independent investigation at the center in Phoenix. If the allegations are found to be true, Shinseki said, “responsible and timely action will be taken.”
Several Republicans in Congress have called for Shinseki’s resignation in the wake of recent reports of treatment delays. So has the American Legion, one of the country’s most influential veterans’ organizations.
Some lawmakers are so frustrated that Sen. John McCain, who is not a member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, asked to address the hearing panelists, including Shinseki, on Thursday morning.
“My fellow veterans cannot wait the many months it might take to complete the report,” the Republican from Arizona said of the independent investigation. “They need answers, accountability, and leadership from this administration and Congress now. Clearly, the VA is suffering from systemic problems in its culture that requires strong-minded leadership and accountability to address.”
Others wondered why the department has not fired any veterans affairs employees over reports of mismanagement, but Shinseki could not provide information about employment termination.
“I do want an answer, because this to me is a fundamental issue,” Democratic Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska said. “As a former mayor, we would fire them. They would be gone.”