U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki vowed to take "timely action" on Thursday to deal with allegations that dozens of veterans died awaiting medical care at backlogged VA facilities in Phoenix while doctors were ordered to cover-up delays.
Shinseki, in written testimony to the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said he was "personally angered and saddened" by the allegations, but it was important for the agency's Office of the Inspector General (OIG) to conduct a thorough review.
"If these allegations are true, they are completely unacceptable – to veterans, to me and to our dedicated VHA (Veterans Health Administration) employees," said Shinseki, a retired four-star Army general who has headed the VA since January 2009. "If they are substantiated by OIG, responsible timely action will be taken."
Shinseki's appearance before the committee is his first major public appearance to address the scandal over long wait times at VA medical facilities around the country. Senators expressed frustration with the chronic problems at the VA and said they wanted strong action.
In Phoenix, VA doctors have said that some 40 veterans died last year while waiting months for appointments at chronically backlogged VA hospitals and clinics. These same physicians have alleged that managers ordered them to hold patients on a secret waiting list until appointments opened up on an official list that met the agency's waiting time goals.
"Any adverse event for a veteran within our care is one too many," Shinseki said in prepared testimony for a Senate hearing. "We can, and we must do better."
Also in his testimony, Shinseki remarked: “I expect our employees to provide the highest quality care,” later adding “we only have one mission – that’s taking care of these veterans."
"We have more than allegations, at this point. We have evidence, solid evidence of wrongdoing within the VA system, and it is more than an isolated instance," said Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, adding that the actions were "potentially a criminal act."
Republican Jerry Moran of Kansas, who has already called for Shinseki's ouster, said the VA's actions to audit scheduling practices at each of its clinics seemed more like damage control than a serious effort to fix problems.
"The problem is more investigations will tell us the same information –furthering delays in actually fixing the problems," he said.
President Barack Obama has repeatedly voiced support for Shinseki but the political tide could turn if he fails to show the committee that he was unaware of any cover-ups of appointment wait times.
On Wednesday night, Obama said he would send a top aide, deputy White House chief of staff Rob Nabors, to help the VA deal with the issues.
Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent who chairs the Veterans Affairs Committee, said he is concerned that the VA is being "politicized" despite serving millions of veterans well.
Veterans groups say similar schemes to mask long waiting times have been reported in Fort Collins, Colorado, Austin and San Antonio, Texas, St. Louis, Chicago, Cheyenne, Wyoming and Durham, North Carolina.
Al Jazeera and wire services