On Hill, VA Chief Shinseki Faces Hospital Death Allegations

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki testified before a Senate committee Thursday, responding to allegations that dozens of veterans died during a long wait for medical treatment in the U.S.

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From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

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And I'm Melissa Block. Veteran Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki faced tough questions from senators today. They wanted to know about allegations that VA clinics are cooking the books claiming they see patients within 14 days, when in reality veterans can wait months for an appointment. And there was something else senators raised with the secretary: Whether he should take responsibility for the troubles and resign. Here's NPR's Quil Lawrence.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: The VA's inspector general is investigating whether veterans may have died while waiting for care at the VA hospital in Phoenix. Allegations followed from around the country - Colorado, Texas and Wyoming - that hospitals were keeping fake statistics about wait times - for now just allegations.

SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: We need to get the facts and not rush to judgment.

LAWRENCE: Senator Bernie Sanders opened the hearing with some statistics of his own suggesting that despite problems the VA is doing a good job.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEARING)

SANDERS: We are talking about the largest integrated health care system in the United States of America. Every single day VA serves more than 200,000 veterans.

LAWRENCE: The problem isn't new. Republican Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina said wait times have been an issue for years, and that Secretary Shinseki now owns the problem after nearly six years in office.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEARING)

SENATOR RICHARD BURR: VA senior leadership including the secretary should have been aware that VA was facing a national scheduling crisis. VA's leadership has either failed to connect the dots, or failed to address this on going crisis which has resulted in patient harm and in patient death.

LAWRENCE: Shinseki, a former army general sat poker-faced through 48 minutes of the senators' statements before he had a chance to speak. When he finally did it was personal.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEARING)

SECRETARY ERIC SHINSEKI: I have this great privilege of being able to care for people I went to war with years ago and people I have sent to war. Any adverse incident like this makes me mad as hell.

LAWRENCE: Senators from both parties pushed Shinseki on whether the VA has fired staff for reporting fake statistics. Shinseki didn't' answer directly, but he said 3000 employees were removed from their posts last year. It wasn't clear if some had retired or been reassigned. Democrat Patty Murray of Washington said the VA needs a cultural change.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEARING)

SENATOR PATTY MURRAY: The standard practice at the VA seems to be to hide the truth in order to look good. That has got to change once and for all and I want to know how your going to get your medical directors to tell you when they have a problem rather than pursuing these secret lists and playing games with these wait times.

LAWRENCE: Senators asked Shinseki if VA officials might have committed crime falsifying records. Shinseki deferred to his inspector general's report, which is being conducted independently of his office and may take months. Nevada Republican Dean Heller ran down a list of problems at the VA and then asked the question on everyone's mind.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEARING)

SENATOR DEAN HELLER: Would you explain to me after knowing all this information why you should not resign?

SHINSEKI: Well, I would tell you, Senator, that I came here to make things better for veterans. This is not a job. I'm here to accomplish a mission that I think they critical deserve and need. And I can tell you over the past five years we've done a lot to make things better. We're not done yet.

LAWRENCE: Shinseki said he'd stay on until the work is done, or the president asks him to step down. At his request the White House has dispatched a senior aid to assist the VA's audit, but so far the president wants Shinseki to stay in his post. Quil Lawrence, NPR News.

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