By Kristina Wong - 05/15/14 10:17 AM EDT
The head of the Veterans Affairs Department said he was “mad as hell” over allegations of secret wait lists and delays in care at several VA clinics across the country.
At a Senate hearing on Thursday, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said that "timely action will be taken," if the allegations are substantiated, but otherwise defended the organization.
He said the "VA provides safe, effective healthcare, equal to or exceeding the industry standard in many areas."
“That said, there are always areas that need improvement. We can, and must do better,” he told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
Shinseki is facing calls for his resignation from two veterans organizations and more than 20 Republican lawmakers, after allegations surfaced over the last few weeks that staff at several VA clinics across the country had manipulated appointment waiting times to make it appear veterans had received faster care.
Shinseki on Thursday saw tough questioning from lawmakers on the panel, who urged him to take quick action to ensure better accountability but stopped short of pressing him to step down.
"We need more than good intentions,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.). “What we need from you now is decisive action to restore veterans' confidence in [the] VA, create a culture of transparency and accountability, and to change these system-wide, years-long problems."
Allegations surfaced last month that staff at several VA clinics across the country had manipulated appointment waiting times to make it appear veterans had received faster care.
The Republican National Committee on Thursday called for a special probe into reports of secret waiting lists at a VA clinic in Phoenix, as well as reports that employees doctored wait lists at another clinic in Fort Collins, Colo.
Shinseki has placed leaders at the Phoenix clinic on leave and ordered investigations into allegations of poor treatment that have now surfaced at six clinics, as well as a nationwide review of scheduling practices.
“I am personally angered and saddened by any adverse consequence that a veteran might experience while in, or as a result of, our care,” he said.
He added that investigators advised him and VA officials not to comment on the ongoing investigations, however, and declined to say if he would fire those responsible.
The White House, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) have expressed confidence in Shinseki, a retired four-star general and Vietnam veteran.
“We need to get the facts and not rush to judgment,” Sanders said in his opening statement.
"There is no doubt in my mind that the VA has problems [but] it is important to put VA care in context."
During the hearing, both Republicans and Democrats on the panel expressed outrage over the charges, and said that a thorough investigation must follow.
While only Republicans have called for Shinseki's resignation, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle expressed outrage on Thursday, calling for a thorough investigation.
"We should avoid a rush to judgment, but we have more than allegations. We have evidence,” added Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). “It's more than an isolated incident, it is a pattern."
Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) cautioned against a "rush to judgment," but said, "We should have a rush to accountability."
Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) asked Shinseki why he should not resign.
Shinseki answered that he intended to continue serving until he achieved his goals as VA secretary or the president asks him to step down.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who is not a member of the panel, asked to make a statement surrounding the allegations at a clinic in his home state. The Arizona senator said he was "deeply troubled" by the allegations of "gross mismanagement, fraud and neglect."
McCain, who was a Vietnam POW, has not called for Shinseki's resignation but said "strong reform-minded leadership" was needed, and that leaders must have the ability to hire and fire employees.
"No one should be treated this way," he said. "We should all be ashamed."
—This story was updated at 2:47 p.m.