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VA scandal takes center stage again in House

Updated at 2:00 p.m.

The House is preparing to dive back into the Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital scandal Wednesday with a hearing that will examine whether a secret waiting list was created and then destroyed to hide how long veterans waited for care.

Three VA officials are scheduled to testify before the House Veterans Affairs Committee this evening, including one who has taken an early crack at explaining the list allegedly maintained by the Phoenix VA hospital.

According to a May 1 letter to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki from the committee's chairman, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., Assistant Deputy Under Secretary for Health for Clinical Operations Thomas Lynch suggested the agency might have maintained an "interim" waiting list that is being portrayed as a secret document designed to disguise true wait times.

A response from Shinseki said the "interim" list was a reference to the agency's transition to an electronic waiting list, which may not have been used properly prior to a change of leadership at the hospital in 2012. Shinseki also defended the hospital's decision to destroy the list, saying it was consistent with their document retention policies.

"Our best information currently indicates that, at the time, transitory or interim notes may have been used by PVAHCS personnel for reference purposes as the newly established [Electronic Waiting List] was populated. Any transitory notes should have been destroyed in accordance with [National Archives and Records Administration] archives," Shinseki wrote to Miller on May 7.

Lynch is set to appear before the committee this evening, as well as the VA's Joan Mooney, the assistant secretary for congressional and legislative affairs, and Michael Huff, the congressional relations officer.

Before the hearing, the House will vote on four VA reform bills, including one from former VA surgeon Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Mich., that aims to improve accountability within the agency and make it easier for supervisors to fire ineffective employees and withhold financial bonuses from those who do not make sufficient progress. The bill was introduced in May 2013, a year before the current scandal came to light.

So far, there has been a rare level of bipartisan appetite for VA oversight on Capitol Hill. Last week, the House overwhelmingly approved a bill that gives Shinseki and future VA secretaries greater authority to fire or demote senior officials.

Meanwhile, Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., announced Tuesday that he plans to introduce a bill that will allow veterans and other patients at VA hospitals to sue employees who falsified or destroyed health records, and authorize the firing of those officials. Toomey argues this will shed light on the true extent of VA waiting lists.

The bipartisan bonhomie may not last that long under the pressure of election-year politics, however. The Republican National Committee announced Wednesday that it is launching robocalls and a Twitter campaign to urge constituents to call their representatives and ask for an independent investigation into the entire VA. They are targeting 10 Democratic representatives and senators "who have supported President Obama's agenda," including endangered Democratic Sens. Mark Begich of Alaska, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Kay Hagan of North Carolina.

Landrieu's office notes that the senator has already worked by increase the agency's accountability by co-sponsoring an amendment to the VA's 2015 spending bill that inserts the language of the House-passed VA accountability legislation.

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