Some U.S. lawmakers are urging the Justice Department (DOJ) to help investigate allegations of wrongdoing at Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals across the country, including the possibility that veterans have died waiting for care and some facilities created false waiting lists to conceal wait times.
In an interview on CBS' "Face the Nation," Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said that DOJ and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are best equipped to help investigate the scandals because of their resources, expertise, and authority to take steps such as calling a grand jury, if necessary.
"These are allegations, but there's evidence to support them. We're not rushing to judgment," Blumenthal said. He added that DOJ can help "restore trust and confidence on the part of veterans, and that has to be our focus. Accountability is a means to the end of assuring better healthcare."
Blumenthal said he has spoken to the FBI director about an investigation, and the agency is "considering what the options are."
Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., appearing in a separate interview, echoed Blumenthal's call to get DOJ involved, especially since he believes there might be criminal negligence at play in the scandal.
"Well, I'm not a lawyer and I'm kind of proud of that. But you know, at the same time, if you have somebody that created a fake waiting list in order to make their numbers look better, more interested in protecting their bonuses and their job than in protecting those that have protected us. Frankly, I think that is criminal negligence," he said.
Kinzinger has been one of the lawmakers who have called on VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign from his job. So far, President Obama has vigorously defended Shinseki's handling of the scandal but has also said he will wait for the results of multiple investigations before taking further punitive actions.
The Illinois Republican said he had considered calling for Shinseki's resignation last year, but resisted because he didn't "want to jump on the resignation bandwagon." What changed, he said, is the allegations that some hospitals created secret waiting lists to conceal actual wait times.
"The reality is, it's been six years, he hasn't been able to tackle this. We've got to have answers now. He's a great guy, but I think maybe bring somebody like a hospital administrator in," Kinzinger said. "Just because the general's been in the military doesn't mean he knows how to run the largest hospital organization in the country. So I think it's time for a major shake up at the VA."
The issue of Shinseki's job standing flared up over the weekend after Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., penned an open letter to Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs) lambasting the majority of groups for failing to call on Shinseki to step down (he praised the American Legion, which had said Shinseki should resign).
"Most of the other VSOs attending appear to be more interested in defending the status quo within VA, protecting their relationships within the agency, and securing their access to the Secretary and his inner circle. But to what end? What use is their access to senior VA staff, up to and including the Secretary, if they do not use their unprecedented access to a Cabinet Secretary to secure timely access to care for their membership?" he wrote.
The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) responded to Burr in another open letter that called his note a "monumental cheap-shot" and "absolutely disgusting ambush style of politics."
"Senator, this is clearly one of the most dishonorable and grossly inappropriate acts that we've witnessed in more than forty years of involvement with the veteran community and breaches the standards of the United States Senate. Your allegations are ugly and mean-spirited in every sense of the words and are profoundly wrong, both logically and morally," the group wrote.
They defended the VA staff as hardworking, and suggested Burr compare their schedules to the "exorbitant amount of days off you receive" as a member of Congress.
Asked about the spat - and whether the scandal has become too politicized - Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said that even while there might be different conclusions between lawmakers and the VSOs, the problems at the VA "ought to transcend politics."
"This really is an issue that needs to be solved. We're talking about the men and women who put their lives on the line, who risk everything for us, and we need to have a system of health care that gives them the highest possible quality care in a timely way and do it in the most cost effective way," he said during a concurrent interview with Blumenthal.