Lawmakers call for tighter grip on VA hospitals

World War II Army veteran Jimmy Bishop, Jr., 87, of Old Bridge, N.J., left, salutes passers by while sitting with Army Reserve Staff Sgt. Ed Machinski, a veteran of Afghanistan, also of Old Bridge, N.J., on Sunday, May 25, 2014 during Memorial Day events on the National Mall in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
World War II Army veteran Jimmy Bishop, Jr., 87, of Old Bridge, N.J., left, salutes passers by while sitting with Army Reserve Staff Sgt. Ed Machinski, a veteran of Afghanistan, also of Old Bridge, N.J., on Sunday, May 25, 2014 during Memorial Day events on the National Mall in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

WASHINGTON (AP) – The chairmen of House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committees on Sunday decried long waits and backlogs at the nations VA hospitals but stopped short of calling for the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki.

“You’ve got an entrenched bureaucracy that exists out there that is not held accountable, that is shooting for goals, goals that are not helping the veterans,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House panel

“I think some people may by cooking the books” to suggest waiting times are shorter that they actually are, said Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who chairs the counterpart Senate committee.

Both chairmen were interviewed on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Meanwhile, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” that the Justice department “has to be involved.” He said there is “credible and specific evidence of criminal wrongdoing across the country” at VA hospitals.

“We’re not rushing to judgment. But the Department of Justice can convene a grand jury, if necessary,” Blumenthal said.

Lawmakers from both parties have pressed for policy changes and better management as the Veterans Administration confronts allegations about treatment delays and falsified records at VA centers around the country. The program serves nearly 9 million veterans.

The department’s inspector general says 26 VA facilities are under investigation, including the Phoenix VA hospital, where a former clinic director says as many as 40 veterans may have died while awaiting treatment.

Officials also are investigating claims that VA employees have falsified appointment records to cover up delays in care. An initial review of 17 people who died while awaiting appointments in Phoenix found that none of their deaths appeared to have been caused by delays in treatment.

The allegations have raised fresh concerns about the administration’s management of a department that has been struggling to keep up with the influx of veterans returning home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Vietnam veterans needing more care as they age.

“You know, if we are going to send people off to war, we have a solemn promise to make sure that when they come home, we are going to take care of them,” Sanders said.

The two committee chairmen appeared a day after the Obama administration agreed to recommendations from lawmakers in both parties and said it would allow more veterans to get care at private hospitals to help ease pressure on backlogged VA hospitals dealing with patients from the wars on terrorism as well as treating old soldiers from prior conflicts including Afghanistan and Iraq.

The problem is not a lack of resources, said Miller. “If money was the issue, this problem would have been solved a long time ago. VA is not using the resources that they’re provided appropriately.”

The VA says it is taking some of the pressure off its hospital system by allowing more veterans to be treated at private hospitals.

The VA spent about $4.8 billion last year on medical care at non-VA hospitals and clinics, spokeswoman Victoria Dillon said. That amounts to about 10 percent of health care costs for the Veterans Health Administration, the agency’s health care arm.

It was not clear how much the new initiative would cost, Dillon said.

Said Sanders: “I think it’s unfair to blame Shinseki for all the problems. Can he do better? Yes.”

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Associated Press Writer Matthew Daly contributed to this report.

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