By Richard Simon, Tribune Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — The Justice Department should enter the investigation of whether Veterans Affairs employees have falsified records to cover up long waits at VA medical facilities, Democratic and Republican lawmakers said Sunday.
“Only the Department of Justice and the FBI have the resources, the expertise and the authority to do a prompt and effective criminal investigation of the secret waiting lists, potential destruction of documents, falsification of records, in effect, the cooking of books and covering up that may have occurred,” Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), a member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said on CBS’s Face the Nation.
Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), a veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, agreed. “Department of Justice needs to get involved,” he said on the same program.
The VA inspector general is investigating 26 sites to determine whether employees covered up long waits for medical appointments.
But Blumenthal said the inspector general cannot do the job alone, and only the Justice Department can convene a grand jury, if necessary. The inspector general has said that the investigation could lead to criminal charges.
The chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, meanwhile, signaled that as lawmakers step up oversight of the VA, his committee would look into whether Congress is providing enough funding to the department.
“I suspect we are going to need more funding if we’re going to do justice and provide the high-quality care that veterans deserve,” Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), said on CNN’s State of the Union. Sanders has questioned whether the VA’s goal of scheduling patients within 14 days of desired appointment dates was too ambitious, given its current budget.
But Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL), chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, contended that the current controversy is an “issue of manipulation and mismanagement.”
“If money was the issue, this problem would have been solved a long time ago,” he said on CNN.
The VA budget has been increased, but veterans groups have contended that it hasn’t been increased enough, given new demands for services from aging Vietnam veterans and new veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
“When you have 2 million new veterans coming into the system, some with very difficult and complicated problems, I do think we have to take a hard look and see if we have the resources,” Sanders said.
Kinzinger repeated his calls for Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign.
“It is really time for a shakeup,” he said. “I haven’t even seen the level of outrage out of him that I think we ought to be hearing.”
But Miller said, “This is much larger than the secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs.” Still, Miller has grown frustrated with the VA. His committee is due to hold a hearing Wednesday.
“You’ve got an entrenched bureaucracy that exists out there that is not held accountable, that is shooting for goals — goals that are not helping the veteran,” Miller said.
The lawmakers’ appearances on the Sunday talk shows came a day after the VA announced it would allow more veterans to use private medical services to meet growing demands for health care.
Kinzinger welcomed the move but asked, “What took so long?”
AFP Photo/Saul Loeb