This story has been updated with comment from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Pressure is mounting on Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, and now President Barack Obama, to do more to get to the bottom of allegations that several VA clinics kept secret waiting lists to cover up the backlog of veterans waiting for medical care.
The House Veterans Affairs Committee voted Thursday to subpoena Shinseki over the allegations, which now involve VA clinics in Colorado and Texas. And the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America organization is calling on Obama to get involved.
IAVA founder and CEO Paul Rieckhoff flew to San Diego this week to coincide with a visit there by Obama, who is in California for several Democratic fundraising events. At a press conference Thursday with several local veterans, Rieckhoff said the president needs to weigh in. “He’s yet to address the veterans of the United States,” Rieckhoff said. “The president needs to assure them that he’s taking action.”
Rieckhoff stopped short of joining the American Legion, Concerned Veterans for America and several lawmakers in calling for Shinseki’s resignation. “We’re in the process of polling our members,” he said. “We have not called for the secretary’s resignation. But what we need to know is, why shouldn’t we?”
Obama has not weighed in on the issue. His spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday that the president takes the allegations “very seriously” but “remains confident in Secretary Shinseki’s ability to lead the department.”
Allegations of a secret waiting list first came to light when CNN aired an interview with Dr. Sam Foote, who worked for the Phoenix VA system for more than 20 years. He said the Phoenix VA keeps two lists of patients with appointments — one for VA officials and one that shows real wait times for medical care — some more than a year.
“The question we have is, ‘What’s next? Are there other VAs having problems?’ Rieckhoff said.
Shinseki ordered an investigation into the allegations of secret waiting lists and ordered face-to-face audits of all VA medical facilities. “The purpose of this review is to ensure a full understanding of VA’s policy and continued integrity in managing patient access to care. As part of the review during the next several weeks, a national face-to-face audit will be conducted at all clinics for every VA Medical Center,” the VA said in a statement.
Despite the investigation and audit, there’s been growing pressure on Shinseki, a Vietnam veteran who took the top post at the VA in 2009, to resign — or at least be more vocal in assuring veterans he’s going to fix the problem. Many veterans’ organizations have long complained that Shinseki hasn’t been visible enough since taking office. Shinseki says he has been in the public eye, traveling to all 50 states, visiting VA facilities and speaking directly to vets. He has also said he’s prepared to take action if the investigation finds evidence to support the allegations of secret waiting lists.
Still, the message has apparently gotten through to him. On Wednesday, Shinseki sat down with several news outlets, including National Public Radio and Military Times. When asked by a reporter if he needs a higher national profile, Shinseki said, “That’s part of the reason we’re talking today, and you’ll see me doing more of this.”