OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Shinseki testifies on VA scandal

The Topline: Facing angry lawmakers on Thursday, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki 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 Veterans Affairs Committee hearing, Shinseki said that "timely action will be taken," if the allegations are substantiated, but otherwise defended his agency. 

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"I'm not aware other than a number of isolated cases that there is evidence of that,” Shinseki said of reports of wait lists and delays that led to the deaths of veterans. But he acknowledged that it “behooves us to take a thorough look.”

Shinseki, though, also offered a defense of the VA, saying it “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 said.

Shinseki has ordered an investigation and a nationwide audit into scheduling practices, but lawmakers from both sides of the aisle called for stronger action. 

"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."

During the hearing, several lawmakers pointed out that there have been previous reports about long wait times and appointment-book gaming in the past. 

Shinseki said he was not aware of those reports, but VA Under Secretary of Health Robert Petzel acknowledged being aware of at least one.

"If someone were found to be manipulating inappropriately the scheduling system, they would be disciplined," Petzel said, but he added that he did not know if such incidents happened. 

Shinseki is facing calls for his resignation from two veterans organizations and more than 20 Republican lawmakers.

After the hearing, Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) said he still believed Shinseki should resign

"I asked more than a week ago for Secretary Shinseki to offer his resignation and for President Obama to accept it, and nothing I heard today causes me to have any doubt about the rightness of the course," he told The Hill after the hearing. "I still think that is necessary."  

"It was good to hear the secretary express concern, but what was lacking was specifics on action," said Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America Chief Policy Officer Tom Tarantino, who testified on a different panel at the hearing. "He could take appropriate action towards employees who have been found to have been cooking the books.

"Veterans out there are losing faith in the system, and they need to see the secretary has his hand on the wheel and is going to correct these problems," he added.  

Nigeria under scrutiny. The head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday raised concerns that the Nigerian military might not be able to carry out the rescue of nearly 300 schoolgirls from Islamic extremist group Boko Haram.

U.S. contributions to the weeks long search “would be worthless” if the Nigerians lacked the skills and equipment to free the girls, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said during a subcommittee on African Affairs hearing.

The administration has lent a variety of assets to the effort, including dispatching nearly 30 law enforcement and intelligence advisors to the American embassy in Abuja, deploying drone flights over the country and sharing satellite imagery.

But Menendez demanded that the Pentagon conduct a review of the Nigerian military’s capabilities and report back to the committee. A senior DOD official also admitted the Pentagon was being “cautious” about what intelligence it shares with the Nigerian military because of its record of human rights violations.

Subcommittee Chairman Chris Coons (D-Del.) said the Nigerian government “took too long” to respond to the mass abduction.

“It took too long for the Nigerian government to accept offers of assistance from the United States,” he said. “Once accepted, it took too long for that assistance to be fully implemented.”

NDAA next week. The 2015 National Defense Authorization Act will hit the House floor next week.

The House Armed Services Committee unanimously reported out the annual defense budget blueprint last week after a marathon 13-hour session. However, several of the major budget battles were put off until the legislation reached the full chamber, including measures on immigration, base closures and military sexual assault.

Lawmakers will have to consider 170 pages worth of amendments before voting on the must-pass bill.

Sexual harassment data published. The Pentagon released a report Thursday that showed there were nearly 1,400 reported incidents of sexual harassment in 2013. 

Although the Pentagon has issued yearly reports on sexual assault and unwanted sexual contact, the report on harassment resulted from a request in the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act. 

"The Department of Defense is committed to eliminating incidents of sexual harassment from our ranks and from our workplace," said the report. 

The report said a 2012 survey showed that of the sexual assaults that took place that year, nearly 30 percent of women and 19 percent of men reported that their offenders sexually harassed them before or after the incident took place. 

"This finding is reflected in similar DoD surveys and implies a direct connection between sexual harassment and sexual assault, both of which are unacceptable across DoD and incongruent with the values we are committed to upholding," the report said. 

Most of the complainants were junior enlisted female servicemembers, and offenders were male officers in their units in more than half the cases. 

In case you missed it:

-White House: Obama angry about VA allegations

-House to vote on VA accountability bill

-Veterans group offers to protect whistleblowers

-McCain: Put Ukraine on track to join NATO

-Senate GOP presses Reid to launch Benghazi special panel

-Senate to vote on author of drone strike memos

 

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