WASHINGTON - A House committee voted unanimously Thursday to subpoena three Department of Veterans Affairs officials if they do not appear before the committee next week to address issues at the agency's Phoenix offices.
The vote came one day after the full House gave overwhelming approval to a bill that would make it easier for the secretary of Veterans Affairs to fire or discipline agency executives whose actions "warrant such removal."
Thursday's vote by the House Committee on Veterans Affairs followed a subpoena earlier this month for VA emails relating to waiting lists for medical attention in the Phoenix area, reports of duplicate lists and delays that may have led to the deaths of some veterans.
The VA returned 200 emails to the committee Monday in response to that May 8 subpoena for documents. When committee members demanded Wednesday that agency officials appear Thursday to explain themselves, they were told that the officials would not be able to get to the hearing to testify.
"I get it, 15 hours is pretty quick," said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., the committee chairman. "But I don't think I need to remind members of this committee that this is life or death."
Miller noted that the VA was able to produce more than 3,000 emails - that were delivered around 2:30 a.m. Thursday. Throughout the hour-long hearing, committee members on both sides of the aisle voiced frustration about apparent unwillingness of the VA to turn over information.
"It's very frustrating to me that the VA has not fully complied with our committee's initial subpoena in a timely manner," said Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, the senior Democrat on the committee.
That was echoed by Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Flagstaff.
"My colleagues and I are frustrated with the lack of information or urgency we've seen, so we are eager to hear directly from these top officials," she said.
Calls Thursday to VA offices in Phoenix and Washington were not immediately returned.
In a message to veterans Thursday, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki said that more than 200 senior staff are involved in a national audit of the VA health system, in addition to an inspector general's probe of charges at Phoenix and other facilities.
Shinseki had previously placed three top administrators in the Phoenix VA Health Care System on leave while the investigation was underway.
But Miller on Thursday criticized the VA for not letting the committee "search through emails," instead of "selectively giving us emails." He said that selectivity helps the VA shape the story, "instead of allowing us to do our constitutional duty of oversight and investigation."
"It's not very hard in this day and age to be able to give us the info we were asking for," Miller said.
The committee voted to give three VA officials until Wednesday to make an appearance that they claimed they were unable to make Thursday. If the three do not appear voluntarily, the subpoena commanding their appearance on May 30 would take effect.
The three officials cited in the subpoena are Joan Mooney, assistant secretary for congressional and legislative affairs; Michael Huff, congressional relations officer; and Dr. Thomas Lynch, assistant deputy undersecretary for health for clinical operations and management.
Miller said it is not a partisan issue and should not become one. Democrats and Republicans on the committee agreed, with both sides saying the threatened subpoena is a fair solution to a situation that has dragged on.
"Our votes for subpoenas have been bipartisan and unanimous - our committee takes its oversight role very seriously, and we expect the VA to be responsive," Kirkpatrick said in a written statement after the hearing. "Especially when so many questions remain unanswered and so many veterans are waiting for care."Fellow Veterans and Family Members,
After 38 years in The Army, I am now honored and privileged to serve as your Secretary of Veterans Affairs (VA). VA remains committed to providing the high quality benefits you have earned and deserve.
Allegations of VA employees' misconduct have surfaced over the last several weeks, beginning with scheduling delays at the Phoenix VA Health Care System. As I testified before Congress on May 15, I take any allegations about patient safety or employee misconduct very seriously. The reports of Veterans' negative experiences while seeking VA care are of great personal concern to me. I fully agree with President Obama's statement on May 21, 2014: "If these allegations prove to be true, it is dishonorable, it is disgraceful . . . ."
In response to these allegations at the Phoenix VA Medical Center and a number of other facilities, the VA Office of Inspector General is conducting a comprehensive, independent review. In addition to the IG's independent review, I ordered the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) to conduct a nationwide audit of all other major VA healthcare facilities to ensure understanding of, and compliance with, our appointment policy. That audit is being conducted now by more than two hundred senior VHA staff. All teams are independent of the facilities they are visiting. You and your families deserve to have full faith in your VA, and we intend to earn it every day.
As President Obama made clear to the American people May 21, 2014, "Every single day, there are people working in the VA who do outstanding work and put everything they've got into making sure that our Veterans get the care, benefits, and services that they need."
I echo that praise and commend the hard work and dedication of the vast majority of our VA employees, many of whom are Veterans themselves. Every year, dedicated employees are prepared to provide care for over 8.9 million Veterans enrolled in VA healthcare. Every day, VHA conducts approximately 236,000 outpatient healthcare appointments-about 85 million last year.
Since 2009, we have enrolled two million more Veterans in high-quality VA healthcare, reduced Veterans' homelessness by 24 percent, and provided Post-9/11 GI Bill educational benefits to more than one million student Veterans and eligible family members. We have opened up new presumptives for Veterans to receive long overdue care for exposure to Agent Orange, for combat-related PTS-D, and for Gulf War illnesses. And, we have decreased the disability claims backlog by over 50 percent in the last 14 months. We will meet our goal of eliminating the claims backlog in 2015.
Every VA medical facility is accredited by The Joint Commission, an independent, non-profit organization that ensures the quality of U.S. healthcare through intensive evaluation of more than 20,000 healthcare organizations. In 2012, The Joint Commission, recognized 19 VA hospitals as top performers, and that number increased to 32 in 2013.
Since 2004, the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) survey has consistently shown that, on average, Veterans who use VA healthcare award our hospitals and clinics a higher customer satisfaction score than patients give private sector hospitals. When asked if they would use a VA medical center the next time they need inpatient or outpatient care, 96 percent and 95 percent of Veterans, respectively, indicated they would. Veterans across the Nation are receiving quality care from VA. We must encourage other Veterans to seek it.
Notwithstanding these accomplishments, VA will do even better. If any allegations under review are substantiated, we will act.
As we approach our observance of Memorial Day and its special significance to our Nation, VA is re-doubling its efforts, with integrity and compassion, to earn your trust.
As President Obama said, Veterans have "done their duty, and they ask nothing more than that this country does ours-that we uphold our sacred trust to all who have served."
And, we will.
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