Congress Holds a Hearing on a Real Scandal: The VA Hospital Delays

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Although the House's Select Committee on Benghazi has stolen the summer scandal spotlight, there is a real, live scandal out there that the Obama Administration is feeling pressure to address: the deaths of at least 40 veterans who were allegedly placed on a secret VA hospital waiting list. On Thursday morning, the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee called a hearing on what went wrong at the VA, during which Veteran Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki is expected to say little about what his department is doing to correct the problem. 

If you're not familiar with the story, here's what you need to know: 

— A VA hospital in Phoenix reportedly had a secret "waiting list" for patients seeking care, apparently in order to hide vast delays in appointments at the hospital. Officials sent an "official" list of appointments to Washington that showed patients getting care in a timely manner, as CNN reported. But there was allegedly a second list they kept secret, on which 1,400 to 1,600 veterans were forced to wait for months just to see a doctor. At least 40 people seeking care there died waiting. 

— A second hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado allegedly falsified its records to make it look like patients were getting appointments within two weeks, as USA Today reported, citing a report from the VA's Office of Medical Inspector. "If the clerical staff allowed records to reflect that veterans waited longer than 14 days," their report reads, "they were punished by being placed on a 'bad boy list.'" 

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Then there were more: Hospitals in North Carolina, Texas, and Wyoming have also faced allegations of attempting to cover up long waiting times, as the New York Times noted. 

It's all in the context of a national epidemic of delays in veteran care and compensation. If you want to read more on that, CNN has been reporting on it for months. The preventable deaths of patients who were waiting for VA care has become the flashpoint for the broad, ongoing issue that until recently wasn't really on the minds of those who hadn't dealt with the system first or second hand. But it's big: "More than 300,000 claims to the VA have been pending for 125 days or more," the National Journal explained on Wednesday, "a time stamp that puts them in the agency's official definition of backlogged." 

Many veterans groups are furious at VA Secretary Shinseki. The American Legion has already called for Shineski to resign, and the Afghanistan Veterans of America announced that it created a whistleblowing site specifically for veterans who want to anonymously provide details on VA delays. So far, Shineski has instructed the VA's inspector general to look into the delays, and has promised "swift and appropriate" action as problems surface. That has included three rounds of placing VA hospital officials on leave. Most recently, the VA disciplined two administrators at a facility in Durham, NC for "inappropriate scheduling practices." In his prepared testimony, Shineski will say that he is “personally angered and saddened by any adverse consequence that a veteran might experience while in, or as a result of, our care.”

Military Times's Leo Shane III has a very helpful spreadsheet on who has backed Shineski so far, and who has called for his resignation. As you'll see, Several members of Congress have already weighed in for and against Shineski.  

President Obama announced that one of his closest advisors will "assist" Shineski in his investigation into the delays. Rob Nabors, a Deputy Chief of Staff at the White House, will temporarily work with the VA on its investigation. Here's what the President said, via Politico: 

America has a sacred trust with the men and women who serve our country in uniform -- one that continues when they come home ... That's why I asked [Veterans Affairs] Secretary [Eric] Shinseki [who is to testify on Hill today] to review practices to ensure better access to care. While we get to the bottom of what happened in Phoenix, it's clear the VA needs to do more to ensure quality care for our veterans. I'm grateful that Rob, one of my most trusted advisors, has agreed to work with Secretary Shinseki to help the team at this important moment."

It's also important to note that the outrage coming from Congress on this one is from both major political parties. House Committee on Veterans' Affairs Chair Jeff Miller asked Obama on Tuesday to create an independent, bipartisan commission to investigate the delays, asking the president to either take action to stop the problem or to explain "why we should tolerate the status quo." 

If you'd like to follow along with the Senate hearing, which begins at 10 a.m., a livestream is available here

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.