Prosecuting VA Officials Would be 'Shot Heard Around the System'

Matt York/AP

Want to get the attention of staffers at the Veterans Affairs Department during the ever-growing health care scandal? Fire a few top officials or charge them for their crimes as a warning to others.

That was a solution offered by lawmakers from both parties Monday at a hearing on Capitol Hill, where a push to punish VA officials was seen as a way to stop the crisis from getting worse.

"I think a few high-profile prosecutions would clean things rather dramatically," New Hampshire Democratic Rep. Ann McLane Kuster said at a House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing Monday evening.

It remains to be seen whether the Justice Department thinks that allegations of altering the wait times for veterans to receive care rises to the level of a criminal prosecution. But Richard Griffin, the acting VA's inspector general, said Monday that firing or prosecuting someone for altering a veterans records, or changing a timeline to help meet a performance measure, would be the "shot heard around the system."

The hearing comes as an internal audit released by the VA Monday found that approximately 57,000 veterans had been waiting 90 days or more for an appointment, and more than 63,000 veterans enrolled in VA care but never had an appointment.

Griffin added that investigators have been sent to 69 facilities--not including Phoenix--to investigate allegations--including those of criminal wrongdoing, but he stressed that they are currently just allegations.

"... You have to work your way back up the supervisory chain to determine who put the order out," Griffin said. "It's not an easy task. I suspect that if people do start getting charged, that middle person will say 'wait a minute I'm not going to take the fall here for somebody higher up than me.' "

The scandal has kickstarted a slew of legislation. The House passed a bill Monday urging VA officials to act swiftly on an reforms recommended by the inspector general.

That's in addition to a bill the House passed last month that would make it easier for Acting Secretary Sloan Gibson to fire senior VA officials. On the opposite side of the Hill, Senate Veterans Affairs Chairman Bernie Sanders introduced legislation Monday with Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain. Among other things, the bipartisan duo's proposal would allow the VA to boost its hiring, increase veterans access to non-VA healthcare, and--unlike the House bill--would give employees a week to appeal a firing.

Monday's hearing largely marked a shift in tone from the committee's frequently combative hearing last week, with lawmakers even thanking VA officials for their candor on the scope of the VA's problems.

Philip Matkovsky, assistant deputy under secretary for health for administrative operations, said the wait times reported by the VA could actually get worse as Congress continues its probe, because the assessments "would be rooted in reality."

But lawmakers still focused in on a slew of VA problems, including outdated technology that VA officials say goes back 20 to 30 years, and a lack of congressional oversight. And lawmakers--like most Americans according to a recent poll--remained skeptical of the VA.

"There is no accountability here, there is complacency here. …People need to get fired, we need to make that happen," Michigan Republican Rep. Dan Benishek said.

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