WASHINGTON — The Obama administration and Congress are moving quickly to respond to a growing political firestorm over allegations of treatment delays and falsified records at veterans' hospitals nationwide.
The top official for veterans' health care resigned Friday, and House Republicans scheduled a vote for Wednesday on legislation that would give Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki greater authority to fire or demote senior executives and administrators at the agency and its 152 medical centers.
The actions came as federal investigators visited a VA hospital in suburban Chicago to look into an allegation that secret lists were used to conceal long patient wait times for appointments. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., meanwhile, called for an investigation into reports that schedulers at a VA medical center in Albuquerque were ordered to falsify patient appointment records.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said the Veterans Affairs Department is suffering from "a systemic, cultural problem" that cannot be solved with piecemeal responses, such as the resignation of a top official.
"What's needed is a total refocusing of the VA on its core mission of serving veterans — stretching from its top political leadership all the way through to its career civil servants," McCain said Saturday in the weekly Republican radio and Internet address.
Citing news reports that VA managers received performance bonuses even as internal audits revealed lengthy wait times for health care, McCain said top VA officials too often have been "motivated by all the wrong incentives and rewards."
McCain, a Vietnam veteran, said Congress must give VA administrators greater ability to hire and fire those charged with caring for veterans, as well as give veterans greater flexibility in how they get quality care in a timely manner.
Reports of long waits for appointments and processing benefit applications have plagued the VA for years. Officials have shortened benefits backlogs, but allegations of preventable deaths that may be linked to delays at the Phoenix VA hospital have triggered an election-year uproar. A former clinic director said up to 40 veterans died while awaiting treatment at the Phoenix VA hospital, even as hospital staff kept a secret appointment list to mask the delays.