WASHINGTON — The Obama administration and Congress are moving quickly to respond to a growing political firestorm over allegations of treatment delays and falsified records at veterans' hospitals nationwide.
The top official for veterans' health care resigned Friday, and House Republicans scheduled a vote for Wednesday on legislation that would give Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki greater authority to fire or demote senior executives and administrators at the agency and its 152 medical centers.
The actions came as federal investigators visited a VA hospital in suburban Chicago to look into an allegation that secret lists were used to conceal long patient wait times for appointments. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., meanwhile, called for an investigation into reports that schedulers at a VA medical center in Albuquerque were ordered to falsify patient appointment records.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said the Veterans Affairs Department is suffering from "a systemic, cultural problem" that cannot be solved with piecemeal responses, such as the resignation of a top official.
"What's needed is a total refocusing of the VA on its core mission of serving veterans — stretching from its top political leadership all the way through to its career civil servants," McCain said Saturday in the weekly Republican radio and Internet address.
Citing news reports that VA managers received performance bonuses even as internal audits revealed lengthy wait times for health care, McCain said top VA officials too often have been "motivated by all the wrong incentives and rewards."
McCain, a Vietnam veteran, said Congress must give VA administrators greater ability to hire and fire those charged with caring for veterans, as well as give veterans greater flexibility in how they get quality care in a timely manner.
Reports of long waits for appointments and processing benefit applications have plagued the VA for years. Officials have shortened benefits backlogs, but allegations of preventable deaths that may be linked to delays at the Phoenix VA hospital have triggered an election-year uproar. A former clinic director said up to 40 veterans died while awaiting treatment at the Phoenix VA hospital, even as hospital staff kept a secret appointment list to mask the delays.
A VA nurse in Cheyenne, Wyoming, was put on leave for allegedly telling employees to falsify appointment records. A VA investigation in December found that staffers at a Fort Collins, Colorado, clinic were trained to make it appear as if veterans got appointments within 14 days, as VA guidelines suggest.
Problems also have been reported in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Missouri, Texas, Florida and others.
Amid a growing outcry, the administration and Congress took steps to reassure the public that problems are being addressed.
Robert Petzel, the VA's undersecretary for health care, had been scheduled to retire this year but instead stepped down Friday. Petzel had said he would remain until the Senate confirmed a replacement, but a department official said Shinseki asked Petzel to leave immediately.
Republicans denounced the move as a hollow gesture. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, called the announcement "the pinnacle of disingenuous political doublespeak." Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Shinseki's "reticence to hold fellow bureaucrats at the VA accountable is exactly why we need new leadership that is willing to take swift action to ensure we are living up to our promises to our nation's heroes."
Cornyn is among a handful of Republicans who have called for Shinseki to resign. The American Legion, one of the nation's largest veterans groups, also has called for Shinseki's resignation and called Petzel's departure "a continuation of business as usual."
The White House said President Barack Obama supports Shinseki's decision to remove Petzel and that Obama is "committed to doing all we can to ensure our veterans have access to timely, quality health care."
Petzel's resignation came a day after he and Shinseki were grilled at a four-hour hearing of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, where lawmakers and veteran groups expressed exasperation at long-standing problems.
In his position, Petzel oversaw what officials say is the largest health care delivery system in the U.S. The VA operates 1,700 hospitals, clinics and other facilities around the country, serving about 6.5 million veterans and other beneficiaries each year.
Miller, who wrote the legislation that the House will take up next week, said Congress must act, because the VA is "apparently unwilling to take substantive actions to hold any of its leaders accountable."
Shinseki on Thursday told senators he was "mad as hell" about allegations of severe problems and that he was looking for quick results from a nationwide audit. He has rejected calls for him to resign.
Associated Press writer Pauline Jelinek contributed to this report. Follow Matthew Daly on Twitter at https://twitter.com/MatthewDalyWDC