Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki faced a barrage of bipartisan outrage Thursday morning, with senators from both parties pointing to systemic problems at the department he manages.
Sen. Patty Murray was among those who said the VA cannot wait for completion of the inspector general's inquiry into allegations of secret lists and deaths at a VA facility in Phoenix.
"This needs to be the wake-up call for the department. The lack of transparency and the lack of accountability is inexcusable and cannot be allowed to continue. The practices of intimidation and of cover-ups must change — starting today," the Washington Democrat said in her opening statement.
"Giving bonuses to hospital directors for running a system that places priority on gaming the system and keeping their numbers down, rather than provide care to veterans, must come to an end. But, Mr. Secretary it can't end with just dealing with a few bad actors or putting a handful of your employees on leave. It has to go much further and lead to system-wide change," Murray said. "You must lead the department to a place where we prioritize the care of our veterans above everything else."
Shinseki continued to urge patience in his prepared statement, saying that the Office of Inspector General needs to be allowed to complete its work to investigate the myriad allegations surrounding the VA.
"I invited an independent investigation by the [OIG] to conduct a comprehensive, thorough and timely review. If these allegations are true, they are completely unacceptable — to veterans, to me, and to our dedicated VHA employees. If they are substantiated by OIG, responsible and timely action will be taken," Shinseki said. "It is important to allow OIG's independent and objective review to proceed until completion, and OIG has advised VA against providing information that could potentially compromise their ongoing review."
Shinseki was asked by Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., why he shouldn't resign; the secretary said his post was not a job, but a mission.
"I intend to continue this mission" until it is finished or President Barack Obama tells him it's time to go, Shinseki said.
The hearing kicked off shortly after a biting speech by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in which he said he hoped Shinseki would recognize a "systemic crisis" at the VA.
While McConnell, Murray and others praised the decision by the White House to dispatch deputy chief of staff Rob Nabors to the VA to oversee the review .
"We know he appointed a member of his staff yesterday to look into it. That's a start," McConnell said. "But if the president is truly serious, he needs to treat these stories at least as seriously as he did the Obamacare website fiasco, when he pledged his complete attention and the full force of his administration to do whatever needed to be done.
"The initial reports of the shocking situation in Phoenix indicate that things have only gotten worse. With similar stories now filtering in from other parts of the country, it's getting harder to believe this isn't more of a systemic, administration-wide crisis," McConnell said. "The Veterans Administration needs to get to the bottom of how widespread the problem has become."
Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.