Eighteen veterans died while waiting for appointments at the Phoenix VA medical center, the acting secretary of Veterans Affairs said Thursday, as senators reached a bipartisan deal on legislation aimed at improving veterans' healthcare in response to coverups of long waits that have caused national outrage.
Sloan Gibson, the acting VA chief, said that he has asked investigators to determine how many of the 18 deaths were the result of a delay in care. If any deaths were caused by delayed care, he pledged to return to Arizona and personally apologize to survivors.
"In far too many instances we have let our veterans down," Gibson said during a visit to the Phoenix facility, which has become the epicenter of the VA healthcare scandal. "They have had to wait too long for the care they deserve, and in too many instances we have behaved in ways that are not consistent with our values."
In Washington, Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, and John McCain (R-Ariz.) announced the agreement, as some senators headed to Normandy, France, for the 70th anniversary of the D-day landings.
The legislation would allow veterans facing long waits at VA facilities to seek care from private doctors, expand the VA secretary's authority to fire or demote staff for poor performance, establish 26 new VA health facilities in 18 states, including in California, and provide $500 million to hire new VA doctors and nurses.
"Right now, we have a crisis on our hands," said Sanders, who caucuses with Democrats.
Added McCain, "We are talking about a system that must be fixed. It's urgent that it be fixed."
The legislation could clear the Senate by the end of next week. This being an election year, nothing is certain. Still, the speedy bipartisan agreement in a usually gridlocked Capitol underscores the urgency of veterans' issues to both parties.
McCain asked colleagues to set aside their usual partisan bickering and swiftly approve the legislation.
"We have, for all intents and purposes, in some ways betrayed the brave men and women who are willing to go out and sacrifice for the well-being and freedom of the rest of us," he said.
McCain is a decorated Vietnam veteran and former prisoner of war whose support for the legislation should help it win votes.
A number of veterans groups welcomed the agreement but said they expect to see more action. Some have called for increased funding for the VA, which operates 1,700 hospitals and clinics handling 85 million appointments a year.
"The VA scandal is far from over,"' said Paul Rieckhoff, chief executive of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
The legislation would give veterans a choice to seek private care if they face long waits at VA facilities or live more than 40 miles from a VA facility. It would extend college education benefits to spouses of service members killed in the line of duty and guarantee in-state tuition for veterans at public colleges and universities. It would improve access to healthcare for military sexual assault victims as well as establish a commission to examine the VA healthcare system and recommend improvements.
In Arizona, Gibson announced that three leaders at the Phoenix VA could soon be fired and promised to provide details about wait times at every VA facility soon.
Gibson's visit to Phoenix — and a planned trip to the San Antonio VA on Friday — comes less than a week after VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki stepped down and the department's inspector general issued a report finding a systemic problem nationwide in scheduling veterans for healthcare in a timely manner, including instances of Phoenix VA staff falsifying records to cover up long waits. Investigators found an average wait of 115 days for a sample of veterans at the Phoenix facility.
Human resource specialists have been brought in to expedite the hiring of more staff, and two mobile healthcare trucks have been set up on site to address immediate needs.
"I will not hesitate to ask for resources when they are needed," Gibson said.
The U.S. Office of Special Counsel, in the meantime, is investigating allegations of reprisals against 37 VA whistle-blowers, including some who have alleged improper scheduling of veterans for healthcare. Whistle-blowers who have complained about reprisals work at 28 VA sites in Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Wyoming.
"Receiving candid information about harmful practices from employees will be critical to the VA's efforts to identify problems and find solutions," Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner said. "However, employees will not come forward if they fear retaliation."
The Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday provided funding for the Justice Department to play a bigger role in the VA investigation. And the House Veterans' Affairs Committee called a Monday night hearing to receive an update on the investigation.
Carcamo reported from Phoenix and Simon from Washington.