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Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, facing calls for his resignation, was scolded Thursday at a congressional hearing, where the ranking Republican told him VA leadership "failed to connect the dots."
The remark at the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee from Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., followed allegations last month that the Phoenix VA hospital kept a secret waiting list to hide long delays in treating veterans. A former clinic director claims about 40 patients died waiting to be seen.
"VA's leadership has either failed to connect the dots or failed to address this ongoing crisis, which has resulted in patient harm and patient death," Burr said.
It was one of many times Shinseki came under fire during the hearing.
"Have you ever fired anyone on this issue, when you find out that they have manipulated the records?" asked Sen. Mark Begich- D-Alaska. "I'd be firing them. They'd be gone."
"Manipulation of data of the truth is serious," Shinseki responded, but did not say whether he would fire administrators who falsified documents. When pressed further by Begich, he said, "There is a process here, Senator. Let me not get out ahead of it."
Sen. Bernie Sanders, chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, also asked Shinseki if he was aware of widespread inaccuracies in patient appointment bookings, or what he called "cooking the books."
"I am not aware, other than a number of isolated evidence," Shinseki responded.
Sanders opened the hearing by asking pointed questions about the system.
“Is the VA adequately staffed? Do we have enough doctors and nurses in various parts of the country?” asked Sanders, an independent from Vermont. “Further, is the VA doing an adequate job of allocating its resources?”
Shinseki told the hearing that the allegations "make me mad as hell," and said he hoped to have a preliminary report within three weeks on nationwide VA rates of treatment delays and falsified patient scheduling data.
The retired four-star Army general testified that an investigation is underway, but stopped short of detailing how his department plans to fix the issues.
"I am personally angered and saddened by any adverse consequence that a veteran might experience while in, or as a result of, our care," Shinseki said in his opening remarks.
"VA is committed to operating with unmatched transparency and fostering an environment that reports and evaluates errors in order to avoid repeating them in the future," he added.
The committee wanted to know what the VA planned to do immediately to address problems.
"We're going to take a look at ourselves and not wait for the [inspector general's] outcomes," Shinseki said.
Shinseki said he asked the VA Office of Inspector General to conduct an independent review in response to problems at the Phoenix VA Health Care System, and placed three Phoenix VA employees — including two senior executives — on administrative leave until further notice.
"If these allegations are true, they are completely unacceptable — to veterans, to me, and to our dedicated VHA (Veterans Health Administration) employees."
But he wouldn't say what changes the VA plans to implement.
"OIG (Office of Inspector General) has advised VA against providing information that could potentially compromise their ongoing review," he said.
The American Legion, along with some congressional Republicans, have called for Shinseki to resign. In Thursday's hearing, Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., grilled Shinseki on resigning.
"Do you believe you are ultimately responsible for all of this?" Heller asked.
Shinseki said he did.
"Can you explain to me why, after knowing all of this information, you should not resign?" Heller asked.
"I came here to make things better for veterans. That was my appointment by the president," Shinseki said. "I intend to continue this missions until I have satisfied either that goal, or I am told by the commander-in-chief that my time has been served."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., also scolded Shinseki: "No one should be treated this way in a country as great as ours."
Later Thursday, top U.S. military officer General Martin Dempsey told reporters he was confident the VA medical system could be fixed under the current leadership.
"I am confident that General Rick Shinseki has the skills, attributes, the concept of duty. He would never walk away from a fight, never has walked away from a fight in his entire life," the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said. "I have confidence that his leadership will help the Veterans' Administration through this."
Before the hearing, veterans gathered on Capitol Hill to demand answers from Shinseki.
"We need to see impassioned and aggressive action from the Secretary. And it's not just going to be about today, it's going to be about what he does tomorrow," said Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America chief policy director Tom Tarantino.
Shinseki's appearance comes shortly after the White House appointed Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors to oversee the activities at the VA.
- With Reporting by Joel Seidman and Courtney Kube