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Florida Republicans Continue to Demand Answers On VA Hospitals

May 13, 2014 - 6:00pm

With U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki under fire after reports emerged that secret waiting lists were used in a VA hospital in Arizona, Florida Republicans in Congress are continuing to push for more accountability.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., demanded answers on Tuesday if similar lists were in place for Veterans Affairs Medical Centers (VAMC) in Florida. The VA hospital in Phoenix altered its waiting list to appear wait times were less than they actually were, leading to the deaths of 40 veterans.

I am deeply concerned about media reports referencing a secret electronic wait list maintained by a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center (VAMC) in Arizona that may have caused delayed medical care for certain veterans, resulting in injuries and even deaths, Rubio wrote in a letter sent to Shinseki on Tuesday. I understand you have rightly directed an immediate investigation into the matter.

However, I believe further steps need to be taken to determine if other VAMCs are engaging in similar practices, Rubio continued. The VA needs to obtain data on all VAMCs timeframes for diagnosis and treatment, and determine if any veterans died or were injured in situations where there was delayed medical care.

I am writing to request you obtain, and provide me with, electronic wait list data for all VA medical centers in Florida, and please include information from the VA Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care System in Biloxi, Miss., since it treats veterans residing in Floridas Panhandle, Rubio added. In addition to that data, I am also seeking your assurances that the VAMCs treating Floridians are not keeping their own separate, secret wait lists that have not been disclosed.

Rubio wasnt alone in keeping the pressure on Shinseki. On Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., called for Congress to pass a bill giving the VA secretary more flexibility to demote senior officials in the department.

Its a national disgrace if any veteran who served their country died from negligence, said Buchanan on Wednesday. Those responsible for these atrocious acts must be terminated immediately and a congressional investigation should leave no stone unturned in finding out how this happened and how it can be prevented in the future. Its also essential that Congress enact sweeping reforms to address the VAs systematic lack of accountability and oversight.

In the meantime, the White House points to Shinsekis recent launch of a face-to-face investigation of all VA medical centers around the country and has not asked for the secretarys resignation even as more Republicans in Congress call for it.

The president takes the allegations around the Phoenix situation very seriously, and thats why he immediately directed Sec. Shinseki to investigate, said White House Press Secretary Jay Carney on Tuesday. And Sec. Shinseki has also invited the independent Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General to conduct a comprehensive review.

It is essential that we ensure that our nations veterans get the benefits and services that they deserve and they have earned, Carney continued. The president remains confident that Sec. Shinseki has the ability to lead the department and to take appropriate action based on the IGs findings.

Carney also took questions on whether VA has the capacity to deal with the 9 million vets who need medical care.

The claim backlog refers to the disability compensation, not to VA health care. So the issue under investigation in Phoenix has to do with access to VA health care, Carney insisted. The issue of the claims backlog has to do with disability compensation. And the VA has cut the disability claims backlog by 50 percent since March of 2013, and is continuing to push hard to make progress on that backlog.

I can also tell you that under the leadership of Sec. Shinseki and his team, the VA has made strong progress to better serve veterans both now and in the future, Carney added. And theres more work to do, and the secretary, of course, knows this. The VAs progress includes enrolling 2 million veterans in high-quality VA health care, reducing veterans homelessness by 24 percent, providing post-9/11 GI Bill educational benefits to more than 1 million students, and decreasing, as I noted, the disability claims backlog by nearly 50 percent. So there is a broad effort underway to improve services, to attack the disability claims backlog, and also to investigate what happened in Phoenix.

Reach Kevin Derby at kderby@sunshinestatenews.com.

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