WASHINGTON – The Department of Justice is looking into whether anyone acted criminally in the Department of Veterans Affairs scandal.
News of the planned investigation emerged from testimony Monday in a second rare evening congressional hearing in less than two weeks by the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.
Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., got to the point, asking the VA’s acting inspector general if he had found any evidence of criminal behavior in his investigation into the scandal.
Richard Griffin indicated his investigators were looking closely at the manipulation of wait lists.
“We have found indications of some supervisors directing some of the methodologies to change the times,” he said.
He said his team has been in consultation with the Justice Department about those actions and whether they rose to the level of criminal activity.
Griffin added, that was still to be determined “in most cases.”
The inspector general also said his department is investigating 69 medical facilities for manipulation of appointment wait times.
VA whistleblowers have said manipulation of wait lists has had deadly consequences.
The scandal began when employees at the Phoenix VA revealed the facility kept numerous lists to give the impression that wait times were shorter and that at least 40 U.S. veterans died while waiting for appointments there.
The VA has acknowledged at least 23 deaths nationwide were due to delayed care.
The investigation into long wait times and manipulating the lists has spread to at least 42 VA facilities around the nation.
The evening’s testimony followed the revelation late in the day that 21 senators, in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, have made a bipartisan call for a Justice Department criminal investigation into the VA scandal.
“Evidence of secret waiting times, falsification of records, destruction of documents and other potential criminal wrongdoing has appalled and angered the nation, and imperiled trust and confidence in the Veterans Health Administration,” they wrote.
Adding fuel to the fire Monday was the release of an internal VA report on 731 hospitals and outpatient clinic with a number of startling findings:
- Approximately 57,000 new patients have been waiting 90 days or more for their first appointments. That is 90 percent of all new VA patients.
- Another 64,000 vets who enrolled for VA health care over the past decade have never even been seen by a doctor.
- Thirteen percent of VA schedulers were told to give false appointment-request dates to give the impression that wait times were shorter.
The controversy forced VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign May 30.
Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson said a preliminary review released last month showed the problems exist across the entire VA system.
He said VA officials have now contacted 50,000 veterans across the country to get them off waiting lists and into clinics and are attempting to contact an additional 40,000 veterans.
The new audit said a 14-day agency target for waiting times was “not attainable” because of poor planning and an increased demand on the VA system as Vietnam-era vets age.
The report said it was a mistake, or “organizational leadership failure,” to decide in 2011 to base bonuses for VA employees on meeting targets for waiting times.
A previous inspector general’s investigation into the troubled after being kept off an official, electronic waiting list.
Questioning of witnesses was much more combative the last time the committee held an evening hearing, May 28, and provided perhaps the most dramatic moment so far in the deadly VA scandal.
Having lost all patience with the witness, Chairman Miller cut off a witness at the top of his voice, bellowing, "Maam, maam, maam! 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."
Miller added that Congress couldn't do its job if the VA would not provide the information it had demanded.
The scene was a hearing 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.
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 canceled appointments, which could be be easily misunderstood as secret lists.
However, 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 asked, "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 to qualify for bonuses by making it appear that wait times for care were far shorter.
When Lynch replied that the VA's inspector general was discussing the issue, 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.”
He added, “I don’t understand how you can look in the mirror in the morning and shave, and not throw up.”