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Florida Congressmen Pressure Obama Administration Over VA Facility Deaths

April 30, 2014 - 6:00pm

With reports that there have been preventable deaths at VA facilities across the nation, including 40 veterans dying as they waited to get into a VA facility in Phoenix, two congressmen from Florida are demanding answers.

On Thursday, U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Fla., asked U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to work with state attorneys general as to whether criminal charges are needed.

Make no mistake for these veterans, treatment delayed is treatment denied, and the consequences have proved fatal, Rooney, who served in the Army JAG Corps and taught at West Point, wrote Holder. Any incident of a veteran dying after being denied care by the VA is unacceptable. The fact that this policy of delay, deny, and obfuscate appears to be widespread and systemic is truly shameful, and those responsible must be held accountable including through possible criminal prosecutions.

Because these cases involve individuals working in their capacity as federal employees, and these incidents have occurred at federal facilities throughout the nation, I urge you to work with the state attorneys general in Arizona and across the country to investigate these preventable deaths thoroughly, determine appropriate criminal charges, and prosecute the offenders accordingly, Rooney added.

The Florida congressman insisted the Phoenix incident was only the tip of the iceberg, insisting he had heard from other veterans around the country and in his district on similar problems.

Recent reports have revealed that at least 40 American veterans died while waiting for appointments at the Phoenix VA hospital after being placed on a secret waiting list. To hide the fact that they were forcing 1,400-1,600 sick veterans to wait months to see a doctor, Phoenix VA managers kept two lists: an official list sent to Washington that alleged progress in providing timely appointments, and a secret one that revealed actual wait times of more than a year, Rooney wrote Holder. Unfortunately, it appears that this was not an isolated case. The House Veterans Affairs Committee, under the leadership of Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., has launched an investigation and already uncovered dozens of recent, preventable deaths at VA medical centers across the country.

I have heard from veterans in my own district who have been forced to wait months for treatment that all too often arrives too late, Rooney added. One veteran in my district waited months for an appointment, and by the time he finally saw a doctor, his cancer had progressed to Stage 4. Another was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, but his treatment was delayed for five months before he contacted my office and we intervened on his behalf.

Rooney added that he will continue pressing the matter from his perch on a congressional committee.

As a member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, and a former prosecutor myself, I will continue working to ensure that both the Justice Department and the VA have the tools and resources to hold these individuals responsible for the deaths of American veterans that occurred due to their negligence and deliberate denial of care, Rooney wrote Holder.

Rooney is not the only Florida Republican pressing the matter. Miller, who represents part of the Panhandle, called last week for more action, even as his committee continues its own investigation.

These are extremely disturbing allegations, which is why weeks ago I called for a complete and thorough inspector general investigation into delays in VA care in Phoenix and department-wide and shared with the IG all of the evidence our committee has acquired as part of our own investigation, Miller said. If proven true, these charges will only add to the growing pattern of preventable veteran deaths and patient safety incidents at VA medical centers across the country that are united by one common theme: VAs extreme reluctance to hold its employees and executives accountable.

In fact, if you look at recent VA preventable deaths linked to mismanagement in Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Columbia, S.C., Augusta, Ga., and Memphis, Tenn. department executives who presided over mismanagement are more likely to have received a bonus or glowing performance review than any sort of punishment, Miller added. It's well past time for VA leaders at all levels to heed the alarms many in the veterans' community have been sounding for more than a year. That means holding employees accountable -- instead of rewarding them -- for mismanagement that harms veterans, and being honest with Congress and the public about the department's problems. This is the only way VA can regain the trust of the veterans it is charged with serving and bring some much-needed closure to the families of those who have died.

Back in February, Miller teamed up with U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Ind., to file a bill protecting VA benefits of veterans who die during the VA claims process.

The VA Department attempted to get in front of the issue last week when news of the deaths in Phoenix broke.

The Department of Veterans Affairs cares deeply for every veteran we are privileged to serve, and we are committed to delivering the highest quality care, the VA Department said in a statement released last week. We take any allegations about patient care or employee misconduct very seriously, which is why the department invited the independent VA Office of the Inspector General (OIG) to complete a comprehensive review at the Phoenix VA Health Care System as quickly as possible. VA also sent a team of clinical experts to Phoenix to review appointment scheduling procedures at that facility and the existence of any delays in care.

VA believes it is important to allow the inspector generals independent, objective review to proceed, the statement continued. We trust that the inspector general will complete that comprehensive review as quickly as possible. These allegations, if true, are absolutely unacceptable and if the inspector generals investigation substantiates these claims, VA will take swift and appropriate action.

Veterans deserve to have full faith in their VA health care, the department concluded. VA facilities are committed to transparency and undergo multiple external, independent reviews every year to ensure its safety and quality. We appreciate the continued hard work and dedication of our employees and of the community stakeholders we work with every day in our service to veterans.

Speaking to the media this week, President Barack Obama said he asked Veteran Affairs Secretary Eric Shinskei to launch an investigation of the matter and defended VA allocations in his various budgets.

I believe that if somebody has served our nation then they have to get the benefits and services that they have earned, and my budgets have consistently reflected that, Obama said. Thats why weve resourced the Veterans Affairs office more in terms of increases than any other department or agency in my government.

That doesnt mean, though, that some folks may still not be getting the help that they need, Obama stressed. Were going to find out if, in fact, thats the case.

Reach Kevin Derby at

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