The Obama administration was asked Tuesday to set up a special, bipartisan commission to investigate accumulating allegations of health care delays at VA hospitals, dozens of the cases linked to findings or allegations of patient deaths.
The request came from the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla.. In a letter to Obama Tuesday, Miller said an independent commission was necessary “to thoroughly investigate veteran access issues, patient harm and preventable deaths as a result of delays in care across the VA health care system.”
Miller cited as a precedent the presidential commission set up in 2007 in the wake of the scandal at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where there were allegations that wounded soldiers were getting caught in a bureaucratic labyrinth of sometimes delayed care or processing.
The VA has recently come under intense pressure over charges or findings that veterans have waited months to be seen by a doctor. In dozens of cases in recent years, some died before treatment was provided. Earlier this year, the VA said its own internal review found 23 veterans deaths in the last three to four years that were linked to delays in cancer screenings.
There have been calls recently from some sectors, including the American Legion, for VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to step down. The agency chief responded last week by saying he would take “swift and appropriate” action should new problems surface.
On Monday, two Department of Veterans Affairs workers at a hospital in Durham, N.C., were sent home on administrative leave week amid allegations linked to delay of health care. It was the third round of administrative leaves in recent weeks connected to charges about healthcare delays.
The VA issued a brief statement that a tip from an employee at the Durham VA Medical Center “indicated that some employees at that facility may have engaged in inappropriate scheduling practices at some point between 2009 and 2012.”
The VA learned of the allegations Monday and two employees at the hospital were immediately placed on administrative leaving pending a review, the agency said.
The two were described as lower-level employees.
According to the VA, the allegations surfaced as agency auditors — as part of a nationwide review — were preparing to visit the Durham hospital. Facility director DeAnne Seekins asked staff about any past problems and one employee came forward with the new allegations, the VA says.
Late last month, in response to a request by the VA inspector general, Shinseki placed the hospital administrator at the VA medical center in Phoenix and two other officials there on administrative leave. The inspector general is investigating allegations by a retired doctor who worked at the Phoenix facility that up to 40 veterans died while waiting for treatment.
There also are charges that appointment records were falsified and some destroyed.
Last week, Shinseki placed a nurse working at a Wyoming VA hospital on administrative leave after receiving from the media a leaked e-mail dating from 2013 that contained explicit directions on how to “game” the system and hide long delays of treating patients.
The inspector general was also called in to investigate that case.
In his letter to Obama Tuesday, Miller expressed concern that “the allegations we are now seeing warrant action beyond the IG’s current capabilities and resources.”