A wheelchair sits outside the Atlanta VA Medical Center, Friday, May 24, 2013.

A wheelchair sits outside the Atlanta VA Medical Center, Friday, May 24, 2013. David Goldman/AP

Republicans Want to Fire Someone to Stop Preventable Veteran Deaths

But VA officials warn against widespread punishment for what they see as a limited problem.

Army veteran Barry Coates went to a clinic run by the Veterans Affairs Department in November 2010 suffering from severe abdominal pain. He said that more than a year later, after multiple requests for a colonoscopy, he finally received the procedure—only to discover he had stage-four cancer.

Coates, who is terminally ill, testified before the House Veterans' Affairs Committee on Wednesday as part of a look by lawmakers into the rash of preventable deaths at VA clinics and hospitals. The most recent report, released earlier this week, linked 23 veterans' deaths to delays in cancer treatment. Chairman Jeff Miller and other committee members said that number could be closer to 40.

And Miller and other House Republicans made clear Wednesday that at least one thing must be done immediately: Someone should be fired.

Miller's legislation would make the process for firing high-ranking civil servants largely the same as firing congressional staffers—who are considered at-will employees. That would mean taking away the notification and ability to appeal disciplinary decisions currently offered.

Republicans lamented that, to their knowledge, no one tied to veteran deaths had been terminated, and that employees must be held accountable.

But while every Democratic member acknowledged that something must be done to determine how to prevent these deaths, they stopped short of backing the legislation.

"It is incumbent upon all of us here to make sure the VA is accountable," said California Democrat Julia Brownley, who hasn't yet thrown her support behind the legislation. And Rep. Raul Ruiz, also from California, recommended that committee members commission a study to compare preventable deaths and cases of negligence within the VA to rates within top private hospitals.

The VA is pushing back on the legislation as well. VA Secretary Eric Shinseki told lawmakers last week that he has the tools he needs to make sure VA personnel are adequately doing their jobs.

And Thomas Lynch, assistant deputy undersecretary for health for clinical operations at the Veterans Health Administration, echoed those comments, saying: "I understand your concern … regarding accountability.… I'm troubled a little bit about whether or not firing somebody is necessarily the answer."

But the committee's Republicans did not budge.

Indiana Republican Jackie Walorski, whose father died of colon cancer, broke into tears while questioning Coates. She called the VA "a bureaucratic system that is broken."

And the committee members have a powerful ally in their quest to help the VA clean house. House Speaker John Boehner told reporters earlier this month that "the secretary needs to have more authority to manage his own department. It's as simple as that," adding that he believes the VA is failing veterans and their families.

And though Republicans and Democrats on the committee have not come together on VA firings, they all agreed on one thing: The VA needs to be more forthcoming with Congress.

Miller said that the committee has been waiting for months on information about veterans' deaths that are tied to VA care, and several members said that when problems at the VA arise, lawmakers are given calm and general responses versus specific ways the department is moving forward.

"It's just my feeling and my only conclusion that I can come to … is that there is something that you don't want the public to hear," Brownley said.