The Veterans Affairs controversy that already has been linked to the deaths of some 40 veterans appears to be spilling over to other VA offices nationwide, with members of Congress bracing for repercussions in states around the country as more details emerge regarding extremely long waiting periods for veterans seeking medical care.
What began as a scandal over duplicitous document keeping at the VA office in Phoenix — a scheme apparently intended to conceal the fact that veterans were being left to languish in some cases over a year on waiting lists before getting access to a doctor — has already blown up into an Inspector General probe involving offices in Colorado, Wyoming, Texas, Arizona, and possibly other states as well.
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As many as 40 veterans are said to have died while awaiting medical care.
On Monday, GOP Rep. David Schweikert of Arizona told "America's Forum" that the revelations so far may be just the tip of the iceberg.
"Be prepared," Schweikert ominously advised "America's Forum" hosts John Bachman and J.D. Hayworth Monday on Newsmax TV. "There's going to be more and more of this as the investigation gets deeper and deeper."
Asked if he expects VA offices in states across the union will ultimately be caught up in the scandal, Schweikert replied, "I would personally be surprised if it's not nationwide."
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Schweikert pointed to a bonus and promotion system within the VA, built around the requirement of a maximum 14-day waiting period.
He says those rewards "created sort of a perverse incentive to game the system." And he expects the House Veterans Affairs Committee probe will establish that the same incentive system was used throughout the VA system.
On Friday, the Office of the Inspector General confirmed to CNN that it has staff looking into allegations in the San Antonio area. Workers there have reportedly said they were instructed by management to "zero out" the wait times, to indicate that veterans were not waiting for medical attention when they actually were, sometimes for months on end.
Also Friday, a nurse at the Cheyenne VA Medical Center in Wyoming was placed on administrative leave after CBS News released a June 2013 email providing his specific directions on how to "game" the system there, so long delays in treating veterans would go undetected.
The email reportedly explained at length how to alter records.
"Yes it is gaming the system a bit," the email stated. "But you have to know the rules of the game you are playing, and when we exceed the 14-day measure, the front office gets very upset."
The inspector general has been investigating reported malfeasance at VA offices since at least December, but has yet to issue a report.
Details about the extent of the wait times, and their apparently fatal consequences, emerged in April. That's when CNN investigative journalists Scott Bronstein and Drew Griffin cited sources stating that some veterans awaiting care were placed on a special list designed to hide the fact that they were waiting many months just to see a doctor.
In one case, a 71-year-old Navy veteran complained of blood in the urine. He was listed as an urgent case requiring examination as soon as possible. The veteran was sent home, and after a long wait, died of cancer.
According to multiple CNN sources, the double record-keeping worked like this: Staffers working under the direction of executives at the Phoenix facility created a secret digital waiting list of patients. Once the digital database was created, paper documents indicating when the patients had first come to the VA seeking treatment were shredded.
The subpoenas issued last week by the House Veterans Affairs Committee demands to see all emails and documents related to the secret lists, including any written communications regarding the disappearance of documents from the facility.
The revelation that some employees at certain VA offices were apparently engaged in "double bookkeeping," in order to appear in compliance with the agency's standard that all veterans should receive an appointment within two weeks of a request, has touched off widespread repercussions.
Members of Congress have begun fielding questions from constituents asking if their local VA office was similarly affected. Watchdog groups and whistleblowers are actively collecting reports of veterans and their families who suffered very long wait times to see a doctor, in some cases more than a year. Two veterans groups, including the American Legion and Concerned Veterans for America, have called for the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki.
So far, President Obama "remains confident" in Shinseki, according to White House spokesmen. In an effort to get to the bottom of the widening scandal, Shinseki has ordered a "face-to-face audit" be conducted at every clinic in the country.
VA officials in Phoenix, who state they implemented the electronic wait list in 2012, say they never instructed staff to create a secret list or shred documents. They confirmed there have been veterans who died while on the list, but state there is no evidence the deaths had anything to do with the care the veterans received.
On Friday, Schweikert indicated the House probe will seek to get to the bottom of who ordered the record-keeping ruse, and which officials were aware it was taking place.
"I know it's only recently sort of broken the press," he told Newsmax TV. "But we've been chasing this for over a year now and we're digging and digging and digging. But we want to get it right, and it's also one of those who as we've seen dealing with this administration that when they know we're onto something, they basically shut down and start hiding data, hiding information, hiding emails from us."
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