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House panel tells VA officials to appear next week or face subpoenas

WASHINGTON — House lawmakers on Thursday told Department of Veterans Affairs executives to appear May 28 on Capitol Hill or face subpoenas, saying the department has failed for weeks to fully comply with an inquiry into falsified documents and dozens of veteran deaths at a Phoenix hospital.

On Wednesday evening, VA executives were told to appear Thursday morning at a House Veterans Affairs Committee meeting to explain why requested documents have not been supplied, but told frustrated lawmakers they could not attend.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, said members would issue subpoenas if the VA does not provide testimony next week by the deputy undersecretary for health and clinical operations, assistant secretary for congressional affairs, and a congressional relations officer.

A whistleblower has alleged a Phoenix VA hospital had an off-the-books waiting list that might have led to 40 patient deaths, and similar reports have surfaced in at least 10 other states.

Miller said the VA has not been forthcoming despite a May 8 subpoena of 27 employees for documents related to the Phoenix allegations and an early admission that a secret waiting list was kept to conceal long wait times.

“It is not very hard in this day and age to give us the info we are asking for … search through the emails,” he said.

Still, the department provided 201 emails in a “rolling block” of info and another 3,000 documents in the early morning hours before the Thursday committee hearing, Miller said.

That has not been good enough for committee members.

“It is unbelievable to me that you could not get those emails done in a few hours,” Rep. David Roe, R-Tenn., said. “We are loosing the trust of our veterans … we are about to blow it up right here on Memorial Day weekend.”

The House push comes after calls from members of Congress and veterans’ groups for Shinseki to resign.

On Wednesday, amid the growing pressure, President Barack Obama called the embattled secretary to the White House for a meeting with deputy chief of staff Rob Nabors, who has been called in to help oversee a department review following the scandal.

And, late Wednesday, the House overwhelming passed a bill designed to put more pressure on VA management by giving VA Secretary Eric Shinseki wider power to fire and demote senior executives in the wake of the agency’s nationwide scandal over patient wait times and related deaths at its facilities.

Obama, who has also drawn fire from congressional Republicans for his handling of the VA, pledged to support Shinseki while the VA inspector general conducts an investigation that is due in August.

House Speaker Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, backed the veterans’ affairs committee push Thursday, saying he also believes the agency has balked at providing documents called for earlier this month.

“The fact is, they have not compiled with the subpoena,” Boehner said during a press conference following the morning hearing.

The speaker said he is moving closer to a call for Shinseki’s resignation given new revelations of more VA misconduct in his Ohio district, but said it would do nothing to solve deep, systemic problems within the agency.

“This isn’t about one person,” he said. “It is about the entire system underneath him.”

tritten.travis@stripes.com
Twitter: @Travis_Tritten

 

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