WASHINGTON (AP) - A top Veterans Affairs Department official is acknowledging "an integrity issue here among some of our leaders" as the embattled agency reels from mounting evidence that workers fabricated data on veterans' waits for medical appointments in an effort to mask frequent, long delays.
"It is irresponsible," Philip Matkovsky, a top VA official who helps oversee its administrative operations, told the House Veterans Affairs Committee at an unusual Monday evening hearing. "It is indefensible, and it is unacceptable. I apologize to our veterans, their families and their loved ones."
Matkovsky's apology, rendered hours after his agency released fresh revelations about slow-moving care, echoed acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson's contrition shortly after he replaced Eric Shinseki atop the agency. President Barack Obama accepted Shinseki's resignation on May 30, but that has not stopped the uproar over veteran's care from becoming an embarrassment for the Obama administration and a potential political liability for congressional Democrats seeking re-election in November.
Richard J. Griffin, center, acting inspector general for the Department of Veterans Affairs, testifies as the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs holds a hearing Monday to examine why thousands of military veterans have been waiting for up to three months for medical appointments.
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 hundreds of facilities.
Asked by Veterans Affairs panel Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., 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.
Monday's hearing came as Congress moved toward addressing the problem, which drew intensified public attention two months ago with reports of patients dying while awaiting VA care and cover-ups at the Phoenix center. The VA, the country's largest health care provider, serves almost 9 million veterans.
Late Monday, lawmakers on both sides of the Capitol said they had finished writing similar bipartisan bills. Both would allow veterans facing long waits for care or living more than 40 miles from an agency medical facility to get VA-paid treatment from local, non-VA health care providers over the next two years.
The Senate measure would make it easier for the VA to fire top officials - much as a separate House-approved bill would do. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the House would vote on its new legislation this week, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said his chamber would vote "as soon as it is ready."
Monday night, lawmakers on the House veterans committee expressed impatience and a wariness of VA pledges to improve care. The agency's inspector general has been issuing reports about patient scheduling problems since at least 2005.
"We're going to get to the bottom of this," Rep. Mike Michaud of Maine, top Democrat on the panel, told reporters. "If that means criminal prosecutions, that means criminal prosecutions."