WASHINGTON — It was perhaps the most dramatic moment, so far, in the deadly VA scandal.
Having lost all patience with the witness, the congressman cut her off at the top of his voice.
"Maam, maam, maam!" bellowed Veterans Affairs committee chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., "Veterans died!"
"Get us the answers, please!" he implored.
Miller had become completely exasperated with Assistant VA Secretary Joan Mooney when she began giving a bureaucratic answer to his question as to why so many veterans had died after what should have been routine colonoscopies at a VA facility in Georgia.
When Mooney began another rote answer, Miller interrupted again, telling her, "That's what you said three months ago," adding that Congress couldn't do its job if the VA would not provide the information it had demanded.
The scene was a rare evening hearing on Capitol Hill, in which three top VA administrators were called on the carpet to answer questions following accusations that at least 40 U.S. veterans died waiting for appointments at the Phoenix facility.
VA employees in Phoenix have claimed many vets were placed on a secret waiting list to cover up the actual wait times, and a new preliminary report from the VA's own inspector general indicated similar problems exist throughout the VA system, nationwide.
Assistant Deputy VA Undersecretary Thomas Lynch testified that, initially, he did not think there were secret waiting lists for VA care. He said he thought there were "working lists" and an initiative to reschedule cancelled appointments, which could be be easily misunderstood as secret lists.
But, both Republican and Democratic lawmakers weren't buying that, especially after the VA's inspector general preliminary report, released earlier in the day, confirmed the existence of the secret wait list.
A poignant hush fell over the hearing room when Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Mich., simply asked, "Who destroyed the list?"
When Lynch replied that he didn't have the names, the congressman said, "Isn't that the first thing you'd ask?"
Benishek said he could not understand how Lynch could do an investigation into whether someone had destroyed important documents and not even bother to find out who did it.
"Didn't you have any interest?" he asked.
Lynch responded that it did not seem important when he was in Phoenix looking into the problem, causing the congressman to counter, "Maybe I am simple minded, but it seems like first thing you'd ask."
Benishek asked Lynch if he wasn't concerned that VA managers may have used secret waiting lists in order to qualify for bonuses, by making it seem like wait times for care were far shorter than they actually were.
When Lynch replied that was a discussion the VA's inspector general was having, the congressman shot back, "Why aren't you?"
One of starkest moments came when Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., a veteran of the Army Medical Corps said he couldn't fathom how VA officials could receive big paychecks and live with themselves as vets in their care were dying.
Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., said all three witnesses should lose their jobs.
“You are not being forthright in your testimony,” he said. “You are here to serve yourselves and not the men and women who have made extraordinary sacrifices to serve this country.”
“I don’t understand how you can look in the mirror in the morning and shave, and not throw up,” he said.
Lynch was aked why more patients weren’t sent to private facilities to receive "fee-based" care.
He said the VA should have done that, but “We felt our core business was delivery of primary care, we had tried to keep that in VA. In retrospect, I think that was not a wise move,” he said. “We should have provided fee-based services while improving processing so we could provide that care in-house.”
The hearing wasn't just emotional, it was long. At 10:00 pm, after two and a half hours of questioning, committee members requested a second round of questioning, and the chairman obliged them.
The evening began with fireworks, as Miller felt compelled to cut off witnesses numerous times in just the first few minutes of the hearing because of answers he obviously felt were mere filibustering.
Because lawmakers had so any questions, the witnesses were not allowed to make opening statements. So, when Lynch appeared to begin reading from a prepared statement, Miller curtly told him the committee didn't have time for long-winded answers.
The chairman then turned to Michael Huff, congressional relations officer in the VA Office of Congressional and Legislative Affairs, to ask if officials at the Phoenix VA had told him a secret wait list had been destroyed.
Huff did recall hearing that and acknowledged taking notes at the meeting.
Miller then demanded to know why those notes had not been turned over to the committee, which had subpoenaed all documents about such a list.
Mooney replied they had been turned over to the office of the general counsel.
When Miller tried to question her about that, Mooney raised her voice and kept speaking.
That caused Miller to explode, demanding, "Excuse me! Let me interrupt you!"
When he insisted she tell him why that document hadn't been turned over, Mooney meekly replied that a small number of documents had been withheld because of attorney-client privilege.
When Miller asked if that included those notes, Mooney again referred him to the office of the general counsel.
That prompted the chairman asked her if the VA was really complying with the committee. As Mooney began another flat reply Miller cut her off again, asking, "Can you say anything without referring to your notes?"
The chairman then assured her that the committee was so deadly serious about getting to the bottom of the scandal, "you an expect us to be looking over your shoulder everyday."
He also asked why the committee still had 110 requests for information that were still unfulfilled.
Miller then returned to questioning Lynch and asked whether it was his contention that there actually was no secret list.
That's when Lynch said he thought there were "working lists" and an initiative to reschedule cancelled appointments, which could be be easily misunderstood as secret lists. He also claimed he thought the lists were destroyed because they contained personal information.
When Miller grilled Lynch about an email written by a VA employee in Los Angeles alleging the facility was manipulating wait times, he said officials there assured him there was no problem.
"Well, let me give you a little hint," Miller told Lynch. "VA won't tell you the truth. So if you’re relying solely on the management at these facilities to tell you the truth, you’re not gonna get it. You’re just not gonna get it.”
The chairman then advised Lynch to go to Los Angeles to look into it for himself, before those lists disappeared.
During his opening statement, Miller said stonewalling of requests for information by the VA caused him to suspect the agency was not doing a thorough investigation of itself.
He also lamented that it took threats of subpoenas to make top VA officials testify.
The top Democrat on the committee, Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Me., said he shared Miller's frustration, and stated, "let me be clear, I am not happy" with the response by the VA.
Before the hearing began, WND learned what key members of the committee were studying, as the crucial hearing on the VA scandal was about to get underway on Capitol Hill.
A staff member of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs told WND there were three key findings in the inspector general's just-released report on problems at VA health-care facilities.
- The problem in Phoenix is systemic. That is, the same problems found at the Phoenix facility exist in VA facilities around the country.
- The report confirms the Phoenix facility had a secret list of actual wait times, in addition to the official list.
- And, perhaps worst of all, the report confirms veterans around the country who are relying on the VA for health care are, indeed, at risk.
The VA brass faced especially tough questioning following the release of the IG report earlier in the day.
As WND reported earlier Wednesday evening, the numbers from the preliminary report by the inspector general were a damning indictment of the Phoenix VA facility.
- An average wait time for care of 115 days.
- 1,700 veterans waiting for a primary-care appointment who are not even on the official waiting list.
- “Most importantly, these veterans were and continue to be at risk of being forgotten or lost in Phoenix [healthcare system’s] convoluted scheduling process. As a result, these veterans may never obtain a requested or required clinical appointment,” the report said.
Lynch promised the VA will contact each of the 1,700 veterans by Friday to see what care they still needed and how to provide it as soon as possible.
The VA problems became a national sensation on April 14 when CNN reported that at least 40 U.S. veterans died waiting for appointments at the Phoenix VA, many of whom were placed on a secret waiting list, to cover up the actual wait times.
The Phoenix VA had claimed the average wait time was 24 days, not the 115 days the IG discovered.
The number of VA facilities under investigation has now exploded. At last count, it was 26.
The report said the IG is now investigating, or will investigate, 42 VA facilities around the country.
The IG's interim report does not address whether the long wait times caused the deaths at the Phoenix VA, but that is what whistleblowers have claimed. Staff members at other facilities have since made similar claims, leading many to suspect the problems run throughout the whole system.
Following the release of the report, committee chairman Miller, called for the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.
“Shinseki is a good man who has served his country honorably, but he has failed to get VA’s health-care system in order despite repeated and frequent warnings from Congress, the Government Accountability Office and the IG,” said Miller in a statement. “What’s worse, to this day, Shinseki — in both word and deed — appears completely oblivious to the severity of the health care challenges facing the department.”
Miller's call for Shinseki's resignation was seconded by Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo. in the following video:
Miller also called on U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to begin a criminal investigation into the VA scandal.
“Today the inspector general confirmed beyond a shadow of a doubt what was becoming more obvious by the day: Wait-time schemes and data manipulation are systemic throughout VA and are putting veterans at risk in Phoenix and across the country,” said Miller.
The scandal is a growing crisis for the Obama administration, particularly because the president has vowed so often in the past to reform the VA.
In fact, WND discovered that during his transition into the White House in 2008-09, President Obama proposed in his “Obama-Biden” plan to “make the VA a leader of national health care reform so that veterans get the best care possible.”
However, instead of fixing the VA, the administration has had to defend its role in the death of veterans by neglect.
In vowing to make the Veterans Administration the model of national health-care reform back in 2008, the administration has made the outlook for scandal-plagued Obamacare seem even worse.
WND has also discovered that eight years earlier, in a failed run for Congress, Obama unveiled a sweeping health-care plan that modeled aspects of the Veterans Administration’s medical system.
The discovery of the Obama-Biden VA plan fits a pattern that has come to light last week in which Obama repeatedly warned, or was warned, of serious problems at the VA but apparently did little in response.
In the document labeled the Obama-Biden Plan from the Office of the President Elect, Obama makes a series of promises to veterans, including:
- Fix the Benefits Bureaucracy: Hire additional claims workers, and improve training and accountability so that VA benefit decisions are rated fairly and consistently. Transform the paper benefit claims process to an electronic one to reduce errors and improve timeliness.
- Strengthen VA Care: Make the VA a leader of national health care reform so that veterans get the best care possible. Improve care for polytrauma vision impairment, prosthetics, spinal cord injury, aging, and women's health.
- Fully Fund VA Medical Care: Fully fund the VA so it has all the resources it needs to serve the veterans who need it, when they need it. Establish a world-class VA Planning Division to avoid future budget shortfalls.
The Obama-Biden plan seems to have fallen so far short of its promise to "Fix the Benefits Bureaucracy" that the VA itself has admitted 23 vets have died waiting for care, and investigations of possible death-by-neglect have spread to 26 VA facilities around the country.
As WND has reported, Obama was warned about severe problems at the VA repeatedly over the years, even before he became president.
- WND discovered that Obama was briefed on problems at the VA as far back as 2005, when he was a senator and a member of the Veterans Affairs committee.
- In a 2007 speech, Sen. Obama said, "Keeping faith with those who serve must always be a core American value and a cornerstone of American patriotism. Because America's commitment to its servicemen and women begins at enlistment, and it must never end."
- The Washington Times reported Monday that the Obama administration received notice more than five years ago that VA medical facilities were reporting inaccurate waiting times and experiencing scheduling failures that threatened to deny veterans timely health care.
- VA officials reportedly warned the Obama-Biden transition team in the weeks after the 2008 presidential election that the wait times the facilities were reporting were not trustworthy.
- More recently, House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., wrote a letter to Obama on May 21, 2013, that warned: "an alarming pattern of serious and significant patient care issues at the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Centers (VAMCs) across the country ... (including) failures, deceptions, and lack of accountability permeating VA’s healthcare system … I believe your direct involvement and leadership is required."
- And, WND reported last week that Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., reminded VA Secretary Eric Shinseki that Congress had been informed two years ago that gaming the system at the VA was so widespread, employees would look to get around regulations as soon as the rules were implemented.
More on this story right after the poll:
Democrats have been quick to say the problems were caused by an increase in veterans in the system due to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that the solution is to increase spending on the VA, but the numbers tell a different story.
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., blamed the VA scandal on former President George W. Bush and an increase in veterans.
"[W]e go in a war in Afghanistan, leave Afghanistan for Iraq with unfinished business in Afghanistan. Ten years later, we have all of these additional veterans. In the past five years, two million more veterans needing benefits from the VA. That’s a huge, huge increase."
Actually, according to government statistics, there are far fewer veterans in the VA.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said, "If the VA does not have enough doctors to see these patients, then these problems are a result of a lack of funding."
On "Meet the Press" last week, NBC News chief Pentagon reporter Jim Miklaszewski claimed, "You have a VA that is overwhelmed and under-resourced," adding, "There's just not enough money right now in the federal government to fix it."
However, John Merline at Investor's Business Daily crunched the numbers and found that just wasn't true.
On the contrary, he found the VA's budget has been exploding, even as the number of veterans steadily declines.
VA spending nearly tripled from 2000 to 2013, while the population of veterans declined by 4.3 million.
Even more telling, wounded warriors coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan are not increasing treatment costs.
Those vets are actually far cheaper to treat than aging vets.
It also found, while these Iraq and Afghan vets account for 7 percent of those treated, they were responsible for only 4 percent of its health costs.
Iraq and Afghan vets, the report found, "are typically younger and healthier than the average VHA patient and as a result are less expensive to treat."
Still, the VA scandal keeps exploding, with no signs of slowing down. VA Secretary Shinseki had testified before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee two weeks ago that he was not aware of problems similar to those in Phoenix at other VA facilities, except in isolated cases. But emboldened whistleblowers have now identified 26 VA facilities around the country experiencing similar problems.
Just last Thursday, an attorney claimed her client died of neglect by the Seattle Veterans Affairs hospital.
The attorney said Donald Douglass had a small spot on his forehead confirmed as cancerous when he went to the Seattle VA hospital in 2011, but it was four months before the hospital scheduled an appointment for him to have it removed — and by then, it had spread, wrapping around a facial nerve and eventually getting into his blood.
According to attorney Jessica Holman, “Had he had his surgery timely, he’d be alive today.”
In Miami, a criminal investigator for the VA police department in South Florida went to a local television station because, he said, the VA told him to stop investigating drug deals on hospital grounds.
“People are dying,” Detective Thomas Fiore said, “and there are so many things that are going on there that people need to know about.”
Fiore claimed illegal drug deals area occur daily at the hospital, involving, “Anything from your standard prescription drugs like OxyContin, Vicodin, Percocet, and of course marijuana, cocaine, heroin, I’ve come across them all."
He says he was even stopped from investigating reports of missing drugs from the VA pharmacy by the official in charge.
“I was instructed that I was to stop conducting investigations pertaining to controlled substance discrepancies,” by the hospital’s chief of staff, Dr. Vincent DeGennaro, said Fiore.
The growing scandal could affect upcoming elections, because if the VA problems offer a preview of government-run health insurance, then Republicans may be rapidly acquiring explosive new ammunition in their efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare.
Former AP Washington Bureau Chief Ron Fournier, now with National Journal, said Obama’s poor handling of the mismanagement at the Department of Veterans Affairs could plague his presidency as an all-time low point.
“The president has known the VA has been a mess for a long time, and hasn’t done anything to get it fixed,” he said.
“It’s gotten worse recently — at least for the last two years, we’ve known we’ve had these problems and nothing’s been done,” said Fournier.
New York times columnist Paul Krugman called the VA a "huge success story" in 2011, saying "[I]t’s free from the perverse incentives created when doctors and hospitals profit from expensive tests and procedures, whether or not those procedures actually make medical sense."
Krugman added, "Yes, this is 'socialized medicine' … But it works, and suggests what it will take to solve the troubles of US health care more broadly."
In 2009, his fellow New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, wrote, "Take the hospital system run by the Department of Veterans Affairs, the largest integrated health system in the United States. It is fully government run, much more 'socialized medicine' than is Canadian health care with its private doctors and hospitals. And the system for veterans is by all accounts one of the best-performing and most-cost-effective elements in the American medical establishment."
Follow Garth Kant on Twitter @DCgarth