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On Hill, VA Chief Shinseki Faces Hospital Death Allegations

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. Veteran Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki faced tough questions from senators today. They wanted to know about allegations that VA clinics are cooking the books claiming they see patients within 14 days, when in reality veterans can wait months for an appointment. And there was something else senators raised with the secretary: Whether he should take responsibility for the troubles and resign. Here's NPR's Quil Lawrence.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: The VA's inspector general is investigating whether veterans may have died while waiting for care at the VA hospital in Phoenix. Allegations followed from around the country - Colorado, Texas and Wyoming - that hospitals were keeping fake statistics about wait times - for now just allegations.

SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: We need to get the facts and not rush to judgment.

LAWRENCE: Senator Bernie Sanders opened the hearing with some statistics of his own suggesting that despite problems the VA is doing a good job.

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LAWRENCE: The problem isn't new. Republican Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina said wait times have been an issue for years, and that Secretary Shinseki now owns the problem after nearly six years in office.

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LAWRENCE: Shinseki, a former army general sat poker-faced through 48 minutes of the senators' statements before he had a chance to speak. When he finally did it was personal.

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LAWRENCE: Senators from both parties pushed Shinseki on whether the VA has fired staff for reporting fake statistics. Shinseki didn't' answer directly, but he said 3000 employees were removed from their posts last year. It wasn't clear if some had retired or been reassigned. Democrat Patty Murray of Washington said the VA needs a cultural change.

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LAWRENCE: Senators asked Shinseki if VA officials might have committed crime falsifying records. Shinseki deferred to his inspector general's report, which is being conducted independently of his office and may take months. Nevada Republican Dean Heller ran down a list of problems at the VA and then asked the question on everyone's mind.

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LAWRENCE: Shinseki said he'd stay on until the work is done, or the president asks him to step down. At his request the White House has dispatched a senior aid to assist the VA's audit, but so far the president wants Shinseki to stay in his post. Quil Lawrence, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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