Watchdog: Accountability

Committee head wants Obama to name special commission to investigate Veterans Affairs patient deaths, care delays

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An independent commission is needed to investigate whether patients are dying because of botched care by the Department of Veterans Affairs, the chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee said in a letter sent Tuesday to President Obama.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., asked Obama to create a special, bipartisan commission to probe near-daily revelations about botched care, long delays, preventable deaths and manipulation of records at Veterans Affairs medical facilities across the country.

Miller noted the flood of media reports and whistleblowers coming forward in recent days to report wrongdoing since he revealed last month that the veterans' committee was investigating allegations as many as 40 preventable deaths occurred at the Phoenix VA alone.

Miller said there were credible allegations that two sets of appointment books were kept in Phoenix to hide long waits patients face in getting care.

“Judging by the throngs of veterans, families and whistleblowers who keep courageously stepping forward, VA’s delays-in-care problem is growing in size and scope by the day,” Miller said. “That’s why I am asking for President Obama’s personal involvement in helping fix this crisis.

“Right now, President Obama is faced with a stark choice: take immediate action to help us end the culture of complacency that is engulfing the Veterans Health Administration and compromising patient safety, or explain to the American people and America’s veterans why we should tolerate the status quo,” Miller said.

The Washington Examiner reported Monday that veterans in the VA's health system in southeast Texas faced delays or denials in getting routine colonoscopies and other potentially life-saving tests because of cost-cutting policies there.

Earlier this month, the Examiner also revealed that more than 1.5 million backlogged orders for medical tests were mass canceled by VA officials without any assurance the veterans got the tests or other procedures that had been ordered.

That practice was initially found by the Examiner in Los Angeles and Dallas, where tens of thousands of medical orders were purged by the agency to reduce appointment backlogs.

Since Miller disclosed the committee's investigation at an April 9 hearing, similar allegations of secret wait- lists and other tricks have been raised at VA medical facilities across the country, including in Colorado, Wyoming and Texas.

Miller instructed VA officials at the hearing to preserve the Phoenix records and that the agency's inspector general investigate allegations that two sets of appointment books were kept.

On May 8, the committee voted unanimously to subpoena records related to the Phoenix hospital amid reports that documents were being destroyed.

Aside from the IG investigation, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki has ordered a nationwide audit of the scheduling practices of medical centers.

The Government Accountability Office also is examining the procedures used by VA to purge the 1.5 million backlogged medical orders cited by the Examiner.

In his letter to Obama, Miller said the allegations that have surfaced in recent week are so serious and widespread that they need to be investigated by an independent commission.

“Given the gravity of the allegations surrounding the department and the issues and frustrations that continue to be raised by our veterans and their families, as well as multiple whistleblowers, I have grave concerns about the ability and appropriateness of any internal investigation regarding these matters,” Miller said.

While he said he respects the work done by the independent inspector general, Miller added, “I believe the allegations we are now seeing warrant action beyond the IG’s current capabilities and resources.”

A similar investigative panel was appointed by President George W. Bush in 2007 to investigate reports of substandard conditions and mismanagement at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Miller noted.

Last week, the American Legion, the largest veterans group in the nation, called for the resignations of Shinseki and two of his top deputies.

Shinseki is scheduled to testify in front of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Thursday.

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