Count U.S. Rep. Ron Kind of La Crosse among officials saying they’re “mad as hell” about the Department of Veterans Affairs scandal in which vets reportedly died waiting for care and VA medical centers covered up evidence.
“I’m really mad as hell and upset that we’re hearing reports about veterans not receiving care,” the Democratic congressman said in an interview after a press conference Tuesday at his La Crosse office.
Kind announced he will seek creation of a bipartisan blue-ribbon commission to investigate the allegations of deaths and secret waiting lists at some VA hospitals.
“Long wait times for care can never be the norm for our veterans,” he said. “And if any efforts were made to conceal the extent of the problem, those responsible need to be held accountable immediately.
“Forming an independent, bipartisan commission would bring needed urgency to this problem,” he said.
The scandal erupted recently with the report that 40 veterans allegedly died while waiting for treatment at the VA hospital in Phoenix. The staff reportedly kept a secret list of patients waiting for appointments to hide delays.
Similarly, the VA Medical Inspector’s Office alleged that a clinic in Fort Collins, Colo., falsified records to leave the impression that staff doctors saw patients within the agency’s goal of 14 days.
The American Legion contends that similar incidents have occurred in at least 10 states, and it has compiled a list of such occurrences, as well as citing VA medical center officials who received bonuses despite woeful job performance.
“Our contract with veterans is a solemn obligation to provide health care. … Any excuse to create a false waiting list and cut corners is just not acceptable,” said Kind, who recently voted for the VA Management Accountability Act of 2014, which awaits Senate action to make it easier to fire senior officials for poor performance.
Kind expressed confidence after touring the VA Medical Center in Tomah and one of its outpatient clinics in La Crosse on Tuesday that Wisconsin veterans are receiving competent care. The Tomah center is a 266-bed facility that operates three other clinics besides La Crosse’s — in Owen, Wausau and Wisconsin Rapids — and serves 16 counties in west-central Wisconsin and Houston County, Minn.
In fiscal year 2014, 1,066 employees and more than 380 volunteers served about 25,000 veteran patients at Tomah VA facilities, according to the center.
“After repeated visits, I remain convinced that we’ve got quality veterans care in Wisconsin,” Kind said, adding that veterans going into Tomah and other centers in the state affirmed that belief.
Asked how the scandal is affecting Tomah VA staffers’ morale, Kind said, “They’re hopeful that the VA system as a whole doesn’t get painted with a broad brush. They feel they’re giving quality care.
“Nonetheless, we in Congress need to identify the problems and fixes,” he said, which is why he wants a bipartisan panel to “give us back a credible report on where the problems lie and where fixes can be made.”
The problem apparently dates back to the Bush administration, but the Obama White House has faced a withering attack on the issue.
President Barack Obama is “madder than hell” about the scandal and is committed to making improvements, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said Sunday on “Face the Nation” on CBS.
During a press conference last week, Obama indicated that Shinseki’s job could be on the line if the issues are not fixed.
Although Shinseki told a Senate committee Thursday that he also is “mad as hell” about the allegations, he has said repeatedly that he won’t resign.
Asked whether the secretary should quit, Kind said that, if evidence surfaces that Shinseki was aware of the problems, “I will be the first in line to ask for his resignation.”
Kind said the bipartisan panel he advocates should include people with military backgrounds and experience working with veterans and their families, such as retired Army Gen. Colin Powell and former U.S. Sens. Bob Dole, a Republican, and Democrats Jim Webb and Max Cleland.