Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki defended himself and his agency as he faced tough questions Thursday before the Senate about the agency he leads, which has come under scrutiny for allegedly covering up treatment delays and providing inadequate care.
A growing chorus of critics, including the American Legion, have called for the resignation of Shinseki, a retired four-star general who was wounded in the Vietnam War. The VA insists that it takes the care of veterans seriously, and Shinseki has requested an investigation into the allegations.
Senator Jerry Moran, R.-Kan., accused Shinseki of engaging in damage control, adding that the VA has failed to provide veterans with adequate care.
"The reality is we have had review after review, IG (U.S. Inspector General) report after IG report...as far as I can tell, (they) resulted in no action by the Department of Veterans Affairs."
Senator Jon Tester, D.-Mont., was more pointed. If the allegations against the VA turn out to be true, he said, "specific heads should roll."
Senator Richard Blumenthal, D.-Conn., implied that, given that there is evidence of possible criminal wrongdoing at the VA, it would be appropriate to involve another investigative body besides the Inspector General. He then asked Shinseki why he should not resign.
"I'm here to accomplish a mission," Shinseki said. "Over the past five years, we've done a lot to make it better. We're not done yet."
"This needs to be the wake-up call for the Department...the practices of intimidations and cover-ups must change—starting today," said Senator Patty Murray, D.-Wash. "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"
The secretary acknowledged that problems exist at the VA—saying they make him "mad as hell"—but defended his agency's overall level of care.
"VA provides safe, effective healthcare, equal to or exceeding the industry standard in many areas. We care deeply for every Veteran we have the privilege to serve," Shinseki said in prepared statements. "VA is committed to operating with unmatched transparency and fostering an environment that reports and evaluates errors in order to avoid repeating them in the future; one of our most important priorities is to keep our patients safe in our facilities.
In opening statements, Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., appeared to defend the agency.
"It's important to put VA health care in context," Sanders said, pointing to mistakes and errors made by private hospitals. "It's not just the VA."
Sanders asked Shinseki directly whether anyone at the VA is "cooking the books."
"I'm not aware there is evidence of that," Shinseki answered, adding that investigations are ongoing.
He pointed out that thousands of employees at the VA have been removed since 2012 but later clarified that many of them were merely re-assigned or retired.
CNBC first reported on issues within the VA Healthcare System last August, culminating in a documentary "Death & Dishonor: Crisis at the VA" that was released last year.