Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shineski said Thursday he's "mad as hell" over allegations of wrongdoing at VA facilities, but his measured approach to fixing the problems did not appear to satisfy senators from both parties who grilled the retired Army general over excessive wait times linked to veterans' deaths.
As the crisis at the VA deepens, President Obama installed one of his top deputies at the beleaguered department as calls grew for Shinseki's resignation.
One Democratic senator suggested potential criminal wrongdoing amid claims that VA workers manipulated the appointments system to cover up excessive wait times, and said the FBI should be brought in to supplement a review underway by the VA inspector general.
Shinseki sought patience from the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee as he awaits the review into as many as 40 deaths that may have resulted from long waits for treatment at the Phoenix VA facility and other problems in as many as 10 cities nationwide. He showed no sign of stepping down.
The secretary said he intends to "provide care for the people I went to war with. I'm here to accomplish a mission I think they critically deserve and need," the Vietnam War combat veteran testified.
In the wake of the allegations in Phoenix, Shinseki launched a nationwide audit of VA record-keeping looking for discrepancies in how hospitals track wait times.
Auditors visited VA Puget Sound in Seattle this week, according to a hospital spokesman.
VA Puget Sound hospitals in Seattle and at American Lake have not been linked to allegations of staffers manipulating appointment records to hide long wait times.
Senators appeared unsatisfied with what they characterized as long-running systemic problems throughout the veterans' healthcare system that makes more than 236,000 appointments a day and operates 150 centers across the nation.
Several senators, from both sides of the political aisle, detailed stories of repeated reports from their states and others of long wait times, dating back several years.
"There's no gray area," said Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), who cited an eight-page memo from VA officials detailing ways workers were "gaming" the books to disguise wait times.
"Clearly this problem has gone on far too long," said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who has long investigated VA complaints. "We need more than good intentions. What we need now is decisive action."
Murray, a past chairwoman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, cited past audits of VA record-keeping that revealed “unreliable” accounts of patient wait times.
“Standard practice at the VA is to hide the truth to look good,” she said.
The Republican chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee has asked Obama to form a bipartisan commission to investigate the problems, as lawmakers raise concerns that the department's inspector general's office may not have the resources needed.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) went further. "We have more than allegations at this point," Blumenthal said. "We have evidence."
Shinseki testified for more than an hour as the committee chairman, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, warned against a "rush to judgment" for a healthcare system that is treating more than 200,000 veterans suffering from PTSD and traumatic brain injuries, many from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was Shinseki who clashed with the George W. Bush administration when he warned that more troops would be needed in Iraq than the Pentagon at the time had suggested.
But in many cases, Shinseki appeared unaware of specific problems senators cited. He noted that his removal of three offiicals from the Phoenix facility was not solely his decision, but was made on the recommendation of the inspector general.
When asked directly by Sanders, the Vermont independent, if VA officials were "cooking the books," the secretary demurred.
"I'm not aware, other than a number of isolated cases, that there is evidence of that," he said.
News Tribune staff writer Adam Ashton contributed to this report.