By Valerie Richardson-The Washington Times
WASHINGTON D.C. – Remember those who gave their lives for their country on Memorial Day, but don’t forget veterans who need their country’s help now.
That was the message Sunday as lawmakers intensified calls for the Justice Department to take action in the Veterans Affairs hospital scandal, saying the accusations have crossed the line from bureaucratic incompetence to criminal misconduct.
Rep. Adam Kinzinger, Illinois Republican, called on Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to investigate accusations that the VA submitted fake waiting list times in order to bolster its numbers while keeping secret lists of the actual wait times for patients.
“When we were talking about a year or two-year backlog, that was incompetence, that was bureaucracy, that was something that we had to take a real strong approach on,” Mr. Kinzinger said on the CBS program “Face the Nation.” “But when it came to, ‘People have created fake waiting lists and veterans have died,’ I think that goes to the level of criminality.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut Democrat, said he has spoken with Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki about bringing in the Justice Department. He said only the Justice Department and FBI have the necessary resources and expertise get to the bottom of the scandal.
The Department of Veterans Affairs’ inspector general’s office is investigating the accusations, which include reports that as many as 40 veterans died waiting for appointments through the Phoenix VA system.
“We’re talking now about evidence, credible and specific evidence, of criminal wrongdoing across the country in more than 30 places,” Mr. Blumenthal said on “Face the Nation.” “The inspector general of the Veterans Administration has only 165 investigators. Plainly, more resources are needed.”
Mr. Blumenthal said that only the Justice Department has the “authority to do a prompt and effective criminal investigation of the secret waiting lists, potential destruction of documents, falsification of records, in effect, the cooking of books, and covering up that may have occurred.”
A former U.S. attorney from Connecticut, Mr. Blumenthal also suggested that there may be a need to call a grand jury to consider indictments.
“These are allegations, but there’s evidence to support them,” said Mr. Blumenthal. “We’re not rushing to judgment, but the Department of Justice can convene a grand jury if necessary. The inspector general cannot.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, called Thursday for President Obama to order a criminal investigation. “You’ve got a crime being committed against veterans,” he told Fox News.
The president has been accused of dragging his feet on the VA issue, waiting weeks before making public comments on the uproar. He told reporters Wednesday from the White House that if the accusations are true, “It is dishonorable, it is disgraceful, and I will not tolerate it, period.”
Sen. John Thune, South Dakota Republican, said he was glad to see Mr. Obama engaging on the issue but “I think the president just waited way too long to get into this.”
“You had reports of up to 40 people who died on waiting lists. You had these reports of secret lists and falsifying records and all these kinds of things,” Mr. Thune said on “Face the Nation.” “It took three weeks for the president to act.”
The president has defended Mr. Shinseki against mounting calls for his resignation from both Democrats and Republicans.
Mr. Kinzinger, an Air Force pilot, said Sunday, “It is really time for a shake-up,” including Mr. Shinseki’s departure.
“Shinseki has been there for six years. He has not been able to get his grip on this,” said Mr. Kinzinger. “The president’s press conference sounded exactly like what he talked about in 2007.”
The congressman praised Mr. Shinseki as a retired Army four-star general but suggested that a hospital administrator might be better equipped to run the Veterans Affairs health care system.
Mr. Shinseki “is a great American, but I don’t think he’s fit for this,” said Mr. Kinzinger. “I haven’t even seen the level of outrage out of him that I think we ought to be hearing. … Just because the general has been in the military doesn’t mean he knows how to run the largest hospital organization in the country.”
Veterans Affairs committee chairmen from both chambers of Congress, while decrying the problems, stopped short of saying Mr. Shinseki had to go.
“You’ve got an entrenched bureaucracy that exists out there that is not held accountable, that is shooting for goals, goals that are not helping the veterans,” Rep. Jeff Miller, Florida Republican and chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, told CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Sen. Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent and Mr. Miller’s Senate counterpart, said that while “I think some people may be cooking the books,” that was not something to blame on Mr. Shinseki.
He told CNN that the former general promised to handle wrongdoing and will do so.
Mr. Obama has said he wants to see reports on the issue, including those from the inspector general, but veteran Derek Bennett told “Fox News Sunday,” “There have been plenty of studies.”
“There was a transition team memo from President Bush to President Obama, alleging that there’s some gaming potentially going on,” said Mr. Bennett, chief of staff of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “At some point, we have to stop studying and actually start action.”
The Washington Times reported last week that Mr. Obama’s transition team was warned in 2008 that repeated audits showed the Veterans Affairs Department was misreporting wait times for medical treatment and that the numbers the department gave were not reliable.
The VA has announced that it will pay for some veterans to seek treatment from non-VA hospitals in order to reduce the backlog, which has drawn support from lawmakers.
“We’ve been calling for this for a very long time,” said Mr. Kinzinger. “I introduced a bill similar to this about a year ago, so I’m going to celebrate this move by the Veterans Administration, but I’m also going to say, ‘What took so long?’”