3 senior VA officials a no-show on Capitol Hill amid claims of cover-ups
By Halimah Abdullah, Scott Bronstein, Tom Cohen and Holly Yan, CNN
updated 10:05 AM EDT, Thu May 22, 2014
(CNN) -- The chairman of the congressional committee charged with investigating allegations of cooked books, a secret wait list and cover-ups in the Veterans Affairs health care system says the findings are "just the tip of the iceberg."
"I know there's more to come," Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida, chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee said on New Day on Thursday. "We've received some information and some tips that will make what has already come look like kindergarten stuff."
His comments come as the committee received word late Wednesday that the three senior VA officials called to testify at a meeting on Thursday would likely not show. The officials said "we didn't give them enough time to be able to get there," Miller said calling the excuse "disingenuous".
The officials were to face a grilling on Capitol Hill over the treatment delays. Instead, the committee will discuss "next steps", Miller said.
"My intent is to go ahead and subpoena them for appearance before the congress for testimony on the 30th," Miller said.
Miller has accused the VA of failing to adequately respond to his panel's May 8 subpoena, which included a request for information about the alleged destruction of the secret wait list in Phoenix. Officials have denied any knowledge of it.
Meanwhile, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki is expected to meet with Sen. Dick Durbin on Thursday -- a day after the President said he wasn't firing the embattled secretary over excessive and sometimes deadly waiting times faced by veterans.
The controversy has mushroomed since CNN first reported the problem last November in a detailed investigation examining several VA hospitals.
After meeting with Shinseki at the White House on Wednesday, President Barack Obama promised accountability, but said he needed more time to review what was going on.
"If these allegations prove to be true, it is dishonorable, it is disgraceful, and I will not tolerate it, period," Obama said.
But he made clear his main target for now was anyone who actually carried out improper practices at VA, rather than the retired Army general at the top.
"Anybody found to have manipulated or falsified records at VA facilities has to be held accountable," Obama said.
His words didn't appease critics such as House Republican leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, who said the President "is known for talking about accountability without ever holding anyone accountable."
Some veterans injured in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan are being made to wait for months to be seen in the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care System despite a national mandate they be given priority access to medical care, a VA doctor told CNN.
Dr. Katherine Mitchell, the medical director of the Phoenix VA's post-deployment clinic, outlined the allegations in a report that aired Wednesday night on CNN's "AC 360."
The revelations of scheduling tricks and secret lists to hide months-long waits for care prompted criticism of Shinseki and the VA on both sides of the aisle.
Rep. John Barrow of Georgia became the first congressional Democrat to publicly call for Shinseki's dismissal since the controversy erupted after CNN's initial reporting.
The American Legion, a major veterans' group that has called for Shinseki's ouster, labeled Obama's decision to keep him in office "unfortunate."
"Words are nice, and even somewhat comforting, but when will the VA's house be cleansed of those who are soiling it and dishonoring the system?" asked Daniel Dellinger, the legion's national commander.
Obama noted that the public wants a "swift reckoning" on the VA issue, but he defended the record of his administration and Shinseki. The President cited increased spending for VA, expanded services, efforts to help veterans go to college and get jobs and reducing a backlog of benefits claims.
CNN reported last month that in Phoenix, the department used fraudulent record-keeping -- including a secret list -- that covered up excessive waiting periods for veterans, some of whom died in the process.
The secret waiting list in Phoenix was part of an elaborate scheme designed by VA managers there who were trying to hide that 1,400 to 1,600 sick veterans were forced to wait months to see a doctor, according to a recently retired top VA doctor and several high-level sources.
Phoenix VA officials denied any knowledge of a secret list and said they never ordered any staff to hide waiting times.
Overall, the number of VA facilities under investigation has expanded to 26, the agency's Office of Inspector General said Tuesday. Last week, the inspector general told a Senate committee that 10 facilities were being investigated.
For six months, CNN has been reporting on delays in medical appointments for veterans across the country, with some dying or suffering harm while waiting for appointments and care.
The most disturbing and striking problems emerged in Arizona last month, with sources revealing to CNN details of a secret waiting list. According to the sources, at least 40 American veterans died in Phoenix while waiting for care at the VA there.
Problem cited in 2010
An internal VA memo from 2010 showed officials warned of "inappropriate scheduling practices" to cover up excessive waits for veterans four years ago.
The memo by William Schoenhard, who was a VA deputy undersecretary, referred to a growing practice of "gaming strategies" that he said would not be tolerated. But the CNN investigation shows such practices have continued.
One of CNN's sources, retired VA hospital physician Dr. Samuel Foote, said Wednesday that VA managers worried about being able to report they were meeting deadlines for providing care to veterans, rather than getting accurate information on what was happening.
If the numbers provided to superiors looked good, then the VA looked good, Foote said. "There's really no incentive for the upper management to get accurate numbers."
The VA has acknowledged 23 deaths nationwide due to excessive waits by veterans for care. The VA inspector general launched an independent investigation of the Phoenix allegations and other VA problems in addition to the internal review.
At a Senate hearing last week, the inspector general said his investigation so far found a possible 17 deaths of veterans waiting for care in Phoenix but added there was no evidence that the excessive waiting caused those deaths.
Obama said Wednesday that the cooked books and excessive waits applied more to veterans with chronic conditions who are among the 85 million VA appointments each year instead of those needing emergency care.
At the same time, he wondered if a 14-day deadline for the VA to provide service to newly registered veterans -- a policy implemented under Shinseki -- was realistic.
"What is not yet clear to me is whether enough tools were given to make sure those goals were actually met," Obama said. "I won't know until the full report is put forward as to whether there was enough management follow up."
Since the initial CNN report, whistleblowers from other VA hospitals have stepped forward to describe similar schemes by officials to hide the extended waits.
Meanwhile, an audit team sent to the Malcom Randall VA Medical Center in Gainesville, Florida, discovered a list of patients needing follow-up appointments that was kept on paper instead of in the VA's electronic computer system.
As a result, three members of the Gainesville VA's supervisory staff have been placed on paid leave, pending the outcome of the inspector general's investigation, VA Sunshine Healthcare Network spokeswoman Mary Kay Hollingsworth said this week.
CNN has tried repeatedly to interview Shinseki, but the requests have been denied.