Darron Cummings, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — United and eager to respond to a national uproar, the House overwhelmingly approved legislation Tuesday to allow patients enduring long waits for care at Veterans Affairs facilities to get VA-paid treatment from local doctors.
The 421-0 vote was Congress' strongest response yet to the outcry over backlogs and falsified data at the beleaguered agency. Senate leaders plan debate soon on a similar, broader package that has also drawn bipartisan support, underscoring how politically toxic it could be for lawmakers to be seen as ignoring the problem.
The VA, which serves almost 9 million veterans, has been reeling from mounting evidence that workers fabricated statistics on patients' waits for medical appointments in an effort to mask frequent, long delays. A VA audit this week showed that more than 57,000 new applicants for care have had to wait at least three months for initial appointments.
"I cannot state it strongly enough — this is a national disgrace," said House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chief author of the legislation.
"We often hear that the care that veterans receive at the VA facilities is second to none — that is, if you can get in," said Rep. Mike Michaud of Maine, top Democrat on the committee. "As we have recently learned, tens of thousands of veterans are not getting in."
The controversy led Eric Shinseki to resign as head of the VA on May 30, but the situation remains a continuing embarrassment for President Barack Obama and a potential political liability for congressional Democrats seeking re-election in November.
Monday night, a top VA official told the veterans committee that there is "an integrity issue here among some of our leaders."
Philip Matkovsky, who helps oversee the VA's administrative operations, said of patients' long waits and efforts to hide them, "It is irresponsible, it is indefensible, and it is unacceptable. I apologize to our veterans, their families and their loved ones."
Matkovsky did not specify which VA officials had questionable integrity. The agency has started removing top officials at its medical facility in Phoenix, a focal point of the department's problems, and investigators have found indications of long waits and falsified records of patients' appointments at many other facilities.
Asked by panel chairman Miller whether officials at the agency's main office had ordered manipulation of patients' data, Matkovsky said he was not aware of that, adding, "I certainly hope they have not."
Richard Griffin, acting VA inspector general, told lawmakers his investigators were probing for wrongdoing at 69 agency medical facilities, up from 42 two weeks ago. He said he has discussed evidence of manipulated data with the Justice Department, which he said was still considering whether crimes occurred.
"Once somebody loses his job or gets criminally charged, it will no longer be a game and that will be the shot heard around the system," Griffin said.
The VA drew intensified public attention two months ago with reports of patients dying while awaiting agency care and of cover-ups at the Phoenix center. The VA, the country's largest health care provider, serves almost 9 million veterans.
The House bill would let veterans facing delayed appointments or living more than 40 miles from a VA facility to choose to get care from non-agency providers for the next two years.
It would also ban bonuses for all VA employees through 2016 and require an independent audit of agency health care. An earlier House-passed bill would make it easier to fire top VA officials.
Miller said VA would save $400 million annually by eliminating bonuses, money the agency could use for expanded care at its centers.
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