The White House on Monday came under increased pressure to launch a criminal probe of the Veterans Affairs Department after an audit found more than 100,000 veterans were kept waiting for medical care.
The audit uncovered evidence of widespread tampering of documents at Veterans Affairs (VA) clinics, with schedulers receiving direction from their superiors to use “unofficial lists” to make the waiting times for appointments “appear more favorable.”
The audit found more than 57,000 veterans waited at least 90 days to see a doctor, and an additional 63,000 people over the past decade never received an initial appointment at all.
Republican leaders in Congress called the findings a “national disgrace” as members of both parties demanded the Justice Department prosecute the officials responsible.
“The Department of Justice should get off the sidelines and start actively pursuing charges where applicable to the fullest extent of the law,” said Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), the chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
In the Senate, 11 Democrats joined 10 Republicans in urging an “effective and prompt” investigation by federal authorities. The leaders of the push – Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) – said criminal charges shouldn’t wait on the results of a VA inspector general (IG) investigation that will be released in August.
“The spreading and growing scale of apparent criminal wrongdoing is fast outpacing the criminal investigative resources of the IG, and the revelations in the interim report only highlight the urgency of involvement by the Department of Justice,” the senators wrote.
The damaging findings of the audit could spur Congress into quick action on legislation aimed at fixing the VA’s problems and clearing the backlog for treatment.
The Senate is likely to vote this week on a compromise bill from McCain and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) that would allow veterans experiencing long wait times to seek private medical care. The bill would allow for immediate firings of VA employees and expedite the hiring of medical staff.
“I am happy to schedule a vote on it as quickly as possible,” Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said.
On the other side of the Capitol, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) promised the House would act this week on a “common-sense bill” that would allow veterans who have waited more than 30 days for an appointment to seek private care.
The audit released Monday, while harshly critical of the VA, pushed some of the blame to Congress, arguing the goal of setting up appointments within 14 days was “not attainable” given the growing demand for services.
Sanders, the chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, stressed that point even as he called for the immediate firing of “incompetent administrators and those who have manipulated wait-time data.”
“The reason certain VA facilities around the country have long wait times is because they lack an adequate number of doctors, nurses and other medical practitioners,” Sanders said.
Still, the audit represents a harsh and sweeping indictment of the VA.
About 500 of the VA staffers interviewed, or 13 percent, said they received instructions to enter appointment dates different from what veterans had requested, and 8 percent, or about 300, said they used “alternatives” to the official scheduling system.
Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson is scrambling to try and clean up the department.
In a release accompanying the audit, the VA promised that cases of “willful misconduct” would be investigated so that “appropriate personnel actions” can be taken.
“Where appropriate, VA will initiate the process of removing senior leaders,” the VA said.
Gibson said the VA was in the process of contacting more than 90,000 veterans during the first phase of a new initiative accelerating care. He said 50,000 had been contacted so far.
Those steps are unlikely to stem pressure on the White House, which is trying to contain the damage from the scandal before it becomes an albatross on Democrats in the midterm elections.
The White House said the release of the audit reflected President Obama’s “commitment to try to be transparent” about the process of reforming the department.
“This is a large task,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest. “There is no sugar-coating that. But it is a task the president’s never been more dedicated to.”