Chairman on VA: 'We have not hit the bottom'

New revelations that Veterans Affairs Department employees at more than 100 sites manipulated patient data shows that Congress has yet to learn the true depths of fraudulent behavior at the department, a senior House lawmaker said Wednesday.

“Unfortunately, I believe we have not hit the bottom yet,” said to House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.)

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Lawmakers have been able to “control the bleeding, but the patient is still on the table,” added Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio), who served as an Army doctor in Iraq and is a member of Miller’s panel.

A new audit of the VA’s medical network released this week found that employees kept secret waiting lists at more than 100 facilities to hide the fact that patients were waiting longer than the department-mandated 14-day maximum.

The documents detail a number of cases where employees told investigators they were afraid of retaliation, including possible disciplinary action, from management if they did not falsify appointment data.

At other facilities, schedulers were “encouraged” to manipulate patient wait times in order to show better results, the documents show.

The department-wide survey was ordered in April by former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. The results were provided to President Obama on May 30, the same day Shinseki resigned.

The audit’s findings were released to Congress this week. In response, the VA released a statement saying it would seek disciplinary action against six employees working at a hospital in Cheyenne, Wyo., and a clinic in Fort Collins, Colo., for tampering with appointment data.

The discoveries are another setback for an agency that has been plagued by months of scandals over patient wait times that in some cases could have contributed to the deaths of veterans.

The VA inspector general and the Justice Department are conducting investigations into the allegations to determine if criminal charges should be brought against employees or managers who engaged in systemic fraud.

Those investigations are expected to wrap up next month.

“I don’t believe anybody understands the depth of where we actually were, the corruption, the lying and cheating that was going on within the system,” Miller said during a panel discussion hosted by Defense One and the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

He said that the culture at the agency must change, but added that “no amount of legislation is going to fix that.”

The House on Wednesday is expected to approve bipartisan legislation negotiated by Miller and his Senate counterpart, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

The compromise bill would give the VA secretary new powers to fire agency executives. It would also provide $10 billion to allow veterans to get care outside the VA system, and another $5 billion for the department to hire more medical staff. About $1.5 billion would go toward leasing 27 medical facilities across the country.

Miller warned that, while the legislation is expected to pass both chambers by wide margins, Congress will be keeping up the pressure on the department for reforms.

“There ain’t no leash for VA,” he said, noting he planned to spend much of the August recess visiting VA medical sites.

The agency “has been allowed to get away with too much, for too long. Veterans have suffered for it. This Congress will not stand for it,” Miller said. “And if you can get Bernie Sanders and Jeff Miller to agree on anything, VA has got to be careful because there are so many eyes looking on them right now,” Miller added.

He predicted it would be a “long, laborious process” for the VA to earn back the trust of Congress and veterans.

On Tuesday the Senate voted 97-0 to confirm Robert McDonald as the new VA chief. The former Procter & Gamble executive sailed through this confirmation process after promising lawmakers increased accountability and transparency at the agency.