Tag Archives: VA

VA ‘Death List’: For whistleblowers, a bold move can be followed by trip to basement

VA ‘Death List’: For whistleblowers, a bold move can be followed by trip to basement

A VA worker in Phoenix experiences an old federal tradition

by Washington Post

VA Veterans Affair Death List Whistleblower
Paula Pedene, a former chief spokeswoman for the Phoenix Veterans Affairs hospital, works in the basement of the hospital, where her desk was relocated amid a misconduct investigation after she blew the whistle on the hospital’s director. (SAMANTHA SAIS)

On her 71st workday in the basement, Paula Pedene had something fun to look forward to. She had an errand to run, up on the first floor.

“Today, I get to go get the papers. Exciting!” she said. “I get to go upstairs and, you know, see people.”

The task itself was no thrill: Retrieve the morning’s newspapers and bring them back to the library of the Phoenix Veterans Affairs hospital. The pleasure was in the journey. Down a long, sunlit hallway. Back again, seeing friends in the bustle of the hospital’s main floor.

Then, Pedene got back in the elevator and hit “B.” The day’s big excitement was over. It was 7:40 a.m.

“I will not be able to do this forever,” Pedene said later that day.

Related: Veterans Turn Their Backs to Obama’s Motorcade

Pedene, 56, is the former chief spokeswoman for this VA hospital. Now, she is living in a bureaucrat’s urban legend. After complaining to higher-ups about mismanagement at this hospital, she has been reassigned — indefinitely — to a desk in the basement.

In the Phoenix case, investigators are still trying to determine whether Pedene was punished because of her earlier complaints. If she is, that would make her part of a long, ugly tradition in the federal bureaucracy — workers sent to a cubicle in exile.

In the past, whistleblowers have had their desks moved to break rooms, broom closets and basements. It’s a clever punishment, good-government activists say, that exploits a gray area in the law.

The whole thing can look minor on paper. They moved your office. So what? But the change is designed to afflict the striving soul of a federal worker, with a mix of isolation, idle time and lost prestige.

“I was down there in that office for 16 months. Nothing. They gave me no meaningful work,” said Walter Tamosaitis, a former contract worker at an Energy Department installation in Washington state.

Four years ago, he raised concerns about the processing of radioactive waste. Then he was transferred to a windowless room in the building’s basement.

“It was so lonely,” he said. One day, there was a big snowstorm outside. In the basement, the phone rang. It was his wife, who’d seen a TV report that his workplace had been shut down. He went upstairs: lights out. Doors locked. Nobody told him.

“I thought the Rapture had occurred,” Tamosaitis said. “And I said, ‘Well, [expletive]. I’m the good guy, it can’t be the Rapture. I should be gone, and they should be here.’ ”

A four-year punishment

In Phoenix, Pedene believes she is stuck in the basement now because of something she did four years ago.

At the time, she was a 20-year employee at the hospital who oversaw everything from news releases to the hospital newsletter to the annualVeterans Day parade. In 2010, Pedene joined a group that complained to VA’s upper management about the Phoenix hospital’s director. They alleged that the director had allowed budget shortfalls and berated subordinates.

And it seemed to work. VA’s inspector general investigated and found an $11 million shortfall in the hospital’s budget. The director retired voluntarily. “I felt we had actually done the right thing,” Pedene said.

But that turned out to be the beginning of her troubles, not the end.

Pedene said the hospital’s new leaders were still suspicious of her, since she’d made trouble for the old leader. In December 2012, she said, those new bosses accused Pedene of violating VA rules.

The chief accusation was that Pedene had let her husband upload photos of a VA-sponsored Veterans Day parade onto her work computer. He was helping her finish a PowerPoint presentation she was working on. He was a non-VA employee, working on a VA computer.

Pedene and her allies admit that this happened. (She was also accused of excessive spending, which she denies.) But they say her punishment has been far greater than the offense.

“They took her out from there like she’d sold nuclear secrets to the Iranians,” said Sam Foote, a former doctor at the Phoenix VA hospital, who had been an ally of Pedene.

While the allegation was being investigated, Pedene lost her BlackBerry, her e-mail address, her office and her position as spokeswoman. She was shifted, instead, to the hospital’s library.

Back then, the library was on the third floor. The library had windows. But not for long.

“They knew that it was moving to the basement,” Pedene said. In April, it did.

Today, the library is one room stuffed with bookshelves and computers. Pedene is a kind of backup receptionist there, sitting in the second desk that visitors get to.

“I used to be the first reception person,” she said. “Now I’m the second reception person. So my days are even more boring.”

That’s because the library’s visitors don’t really need that much help. Many of them are here to do personal business on the free computers and phone.

On one recent morning, for instance, a man at one computer was loudly doing a telephone interview. (“Occasionally, I’ll have a beer. But that’s it,” the man said. “No addiction. No felony.”) Another visitor said his truck had been stolen.

He wanted to borrow the library’s phone.

“If it’s not back today — in the yard and parked — those boys will be looking for you,” he said in one phone call. He seemed to be leaving a message to the actual truck thief, threatening to call the police.

Pedene’s role in all this is to log visitors onto the computers, help them make copies, and occasionally lend a stapler or a pencil. In her idle time, the wheels still spin. One day last month, she was constantly thinking about how she would be handling the hospital’s P.R. — if that were still her job.

The Facebook postings have been pretty poor lately, she said one day last month. And they’ve done nothing with the health observation calendar! Nobody has a clue that this is World Hepatitis Day, or Cord Blood Awareness Month.

“I don’t feel like I’m using the full potential that God has given me,” Pedene said. She is staying on in the basement because she thinks someday, the VA will let her out. “My goal is to be an awesome PR person for VA again,” she says.

A non-answer from the VA

So how does VA explain what has happened to Pedene?

Here, things turn slightly nightmarish. At the Phoenix hospital, a spokeswoman said she couldn’t answer the question.

“Why she was moved to the library was Ms. Helman’s decision,” said spokeswoman Jean Schaefer. She meant Sharon Helman, the hospital’s director from 2012 until this year.

Could Helman explain it, then?

The spokeswoman said no to that, too.

The reason was that this spring, Sam Foote — the doctor who was Pedene’s old ally — revealed an enormous scandal that occurred on Helman’s watch. Phoenix VA staffers were using bogus wait lists to hide the fact that patients were waiting too long for care.

Helman was put on leave, Schaefer said. She couldn’t be reached (Helman didn’t respond to an e-mail from The Washington Post).

So the person who forced Pedene out of her office has been forced out ofher office. Has anybody checked to see whether Pedene should get out of the basement now?

Schaefer said she couldn’t answer the question.

“Since these are personnel actions, we are unable to provide any comment,” she said in an e-mail.

A spokesman for the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee said the committee is looking into Pedene’s case — and so is the Office of Special Counsel, which is in charge of protecting federal whistleblowers. The Office of Special Counsel declined to comment, citing privacy rules.

Across the country, there are no reliable statistics about how often federal employees and contractors are sent into this kind of internal exile. In a 2010 survey, 13.7 percent of federal workers said they had personally been punished by their bosses, by being moved to a different “geographical location.” But the question was too broad. Its wording could include a relocation to the basement, or to North Dakota.

‘A long, rich tradition’

But activists who help whistleblowers say they’ve seen it happen again and again.

“There’s a long, rich tradition of exiling whistleblowers to dusty, dark closets, or hallways, or public spaces,” said Tom Devine, of the watchdog group Government Accountability Project.

He said that, in many cases, the new, bad office is close enough to the old, good office that the person’s colleagues see what’s become of them. “The bureaucratic equivalent of putting a whistleblower in the stocks,” Devine said.

In the 1980s, for instance, Air Force chemist Joseph Whitson testified in a military court about mismanagement in his office. When he got back to work, he was given a new job in a basement: dusting file cabinets and sweeping the floor.

More recently, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) has drawn attention to the case of Robert Kobus, an FBI employee who complained that agents were entering false information into the FBI’s time-and-attendance system. Grassley said that in 2005, Kobus was moved to a cubicle on an otherwise vacant floor of an FBI building in New York. Kobus’s own attorney declined comment on the case.

In theory, it is illegal to make the basement into a bureaucratic purgatory. In 1994, for instance, Congress prohibited agencies from making significant changes in a whistleblower’s “working conditions” as punishment for speaking out.

But in practice, the situation is murkier. Some courts have said moving an employee to a basement or closet usually amounts to punishment. But others have said this is a decision that should be made case by case. How nice is the basement office? How big is the closet?

“To get a lawyer to take your case, you need to have damages. And the damages for that kind of claim, standing alone — it just wouldn’t be a great case to bring in court,” said Sandra Sperino, a University of Cincinnati law professor who has studied this kind of scenario.

“If you’re fired, you might be able to get damages for your lost income. There may be some damages for getting moved to the basement or a dingy closet, but they’re minimal.” She said a lawyer’s best bet would be to seek punitive damages, or compensation for emotional distress.

Back in the basement of the Phoenix hospital, Pedene’s day unspooled slowly. Somebody asked her how to repair his home printer. Someone needed help printing a résumé. Somebody needed her to look up Home Depot in the phone book.

“What can you do?” a woman in a doctor’s coat asked Pedene, inquiring quietly about her situation.

“Nothing,” Pedene told her. “Just hope it gets better.”

This was a rare good moment: a friend who’d ventured downstairs into the hospital basement. But eventually, the friend revealed why she was there.

“But anyway,” she said, “I’m looking for a copy machine.”

Vet’s call for medical appointment at VA prompts visit by armed agents

Vet’s call for medical appointment at VA prompts visit by armed agents

By Howard Altman | Tribune Staff 

Like a lot of veterans, Michael Henry says he has been waiting a long time for help from the C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center in Pinellas County.

But unlike most, Henry, a medically discharged Army staff sergeant, had armed agents from the Department of Veteran Affairs’ Office of Inspector General show up at his house in St. Petersburg last week.

He said they wanted to know if he had threatened Young center director Suzanne M. Klinker about 90 minutes earlier. The agents, he said, were antagonistic and told him that they would find a way to charge him and that they would “slow-walk” any VA claims he had pending or in the future.

Jim O’Neill, assistant inspector general for investigations, confirmed agents visited Henry because of his interactions with one or more VA employees, but denied the agents were antagonistic. Agent Sean Keen was merely telling Henry that the federal prosecutors had to make the final determination on any charges, said O’Neill. Keen’s statement about “slow-walking” claims was “well-intentioned but inaccurate advice and not meant to be a threat,” said O’Neill.

Late Monday afternoon, the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute Henry, said O’Neill. A spokesman for that office could not confirm that late Monday afternoon.

VA OIG special agent Amy Trebino said the investigation was launched because Henry threatened the VA over the phone, telling an employee with the agency “that he knew where Director Suzanne Klinker lived, gave her address, and also said the name of her son who lives at the residence,” according to a St. Petersburg police report. “Trebino says this threat has special concern because Henry has been arrested for stalking and violating his probation in another state.”

When asked about his statements, Henry told the agents “that he did not remember saying those things to someone on the phone and that he was on medication,” according to the report.

In a phone interview Monday, Henry, 53, denied saying he knew where Klinker lives and said he didn’t even know she had a son. He said the arrest mentioned in the police report stemmed from a 2006 incident in Tennessee involving his ex-wife. The two, he said, had reciprocal restraining orders. That information could not immediately be confirmed.

Henry said he was in bed when the police and agents arrived at his house shortly after 6 p.m. Friday.

“I heard a banging on my the door,” he said. “They were just about knocking the door down.”

Henry said he has nerve damage in his right leg and a neck problem and had trouble getting out of bed. He said two federal agents were accompanied by two St. Petersburg police officers and that one of the police officers brushed his mother-in-law aside after opening the door.

The report states that police and agents “were allowed in by the subject’s mother.”

Henry said the agents and police then went to his daughter-in-law’s room, were told that he was on the other side of the house, where they eventually found him.

“There was a lot of screaming,” he said. “They were screaming at me, trying to antagonize me to get angry.”

Henry said that he videotaped the entire episode, which lasted a little more than an hour, but was told to erase the recording by the agents.

O’Neill said the agents knew they were being recorded and when they were finished talking to Henry, they asked him to erase the recording because they sometimes have to go undercover.

“They didn’t want it on YouTube,” said O’Neill. “They said that could potentially be a problem. He complied.”

O’Neill would not comment about the information in the police report, saying only that the agents were “acting in response to interactions between the veteran and one or more VA employees.”

The incident was sparked, said Henry, by a phone call he made about 90 minutes earlier to the VA crisis hotline, which then dialed in a Young center patient advocate for a three-way conversation.

Henry said he had been seeking a consult for his neck problems for eight months with no luck. He said he began calling the hospital on a daily basis about two weeks ago.

During the three-way conversation, Henry said he was told by the advocate that he would have to wait for an appointment. Henry said he responded by asking if Klinker could meet him, either for breakfast, lunch, dinner or at her home.

Young center spokesman Jason Dangel confirmed that Henry is a patient but could not immediately confirm what treatment he was seeking or his interactions with hospital staff.

“Our leadership team maintains an open door policy with both veterans and employees regarding concerns,” he said in an email, adding that veterans “frequently meet with our leadership team” including the director.

Referring questions about what happened at Henry’s home to the Office of Inspector General, Dangel said that “as the fourth busiest VA health care system in the country, it is extremely important that we provide adequate security resources and reporting mechanisms to safeguard our employee population.”

Though unusual, such encounters are not unprecedented.

O’Neill said that there has been a nearly five-fold increase in the number of threat investigations over the past seven years, from 132 in the fiscal year ending in September, 2007 to 592 in the fiscal year ending last September.

In about 90 percent of those cases, there were no charges, O’Neill said.

The reason for the large increase in threat investigations has far more to do with the greater awareness VA employees have that such services are available than a reaction to the current controversies over wait times resulting in patient deaths and backlogs in benefits ratings, O’Neil said.

At any given time there are about 160 special agents from his office in the field, said O’Neill, who declined to say how many are in this region.

Investigation finds “corrosive culture” at VA

Investigation finds “corrosive culture” at VA

The results of the White House investigation of VA health care were released late Friday evening, and they paint a bleak picture.

The review says VA leadership is not prepared to deliver effective day-to-day management and is marked by an inherent lack of responsiveness.

vareport.jpg
 CBS NEWS

The president ordered the investigation after reports that some VA managers lied about how long veterans waited for health care, hiding the fact that many couldn’t get appointments for months.

President Obama sent his deputy White House chief of staff Rob Nabors to be his eyes and ears at the VA, and his report combines scathing criticism with ideas on moving the VA forward.

Nabors began his six-week study with a personal visit to the Phoenix VA, where 18 veterans died waiting for care. But his conclusions apply nationwide.

Nabors describes a “corrosive culture” marked “by poor management,” “distrust between some VA employees and management,” “a history of retaliation toward employees” and “a lack of accountability.”

His recommendations include several changes.

He would scrap the stated goal of making appointments within 14 days, an unrealistic goal that encouraged false reports and hidden wait times.

He would update the VA software program for scheduling called VISTA, a program first used in 1985.

Nabors also calls for the VA to hire more doctors and nurses, and build more physical space that will be needed for veterans in the future.

varesignations.jpg
 CBS NEWS

 

 

 

During Nabor’s time at the VA, there’s been an executive shake up. Secretary Eric Shinseki, two of the department’s top health officials and the VA’s chief lawyer have all been asked to resign.

Perhaps most important to veterans right now is that the VA is also reporting an unprecedented number of new appointments, 182,000 since the scandal began. That’s a sign of a new, serious effort to get veterans into care but it’s also a sign of just how backlogged the medical system had become.

VA destroyed records to cover up massive cancellations for wait-list fraud

VA destroyed records to cover up massive cancellations for wait-list fraud

BY ED MORRISSEY, HotAir.com
 judicial watch logo law

Judicial Watch has found documentation that shows a deliberate effort to destroy documentation relating to massive cancellations of appointments at the VA in order to falsify wait times. In a press release this morning (not yet up on its site), the watchdog group lays out the findings from documents accessed through FOIA demands that vindicate one whistleblower and expose the wider fraud effort that went far beyond scheduling. In this case, the Office of Inspector General might have some questions to answer, too:

Judicial Watch announced today that in March 2014 it obtained internal Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) documents revealing that on November 25, 2009, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) was informed that top VA officials had ordered a nationwide purge of “all outstanding [MRI] imaging orders for studies older than 6 months.” Seven days later, on December 2, 2009, the OIG closed its investigation without taking further action.

The documents obtained by Judicial Watch also detail repeated efforts by VA whistleblower Oliver Mitchell, a Marine veteran and former patient services assistant, to persuade the OIG to fully investigate the mass destruction of veterans’ medical files and the cancellation of examination requests. The documents, dating back to 2009, reveal that OIG spent barely two months investigating the allegations before closing the case.

Dept of Veterans Affairs

The VA documents came in response to a February 27, 2014, Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed by Judicial Watch seeking “records of communications between officials of the Veterans Administration Greater Los Angeles Medical Center [GLA] from August 1, 2008, to July 32, 2009, relating to the destruction of patient medial files and the cancellation of medical exam requests.” The FOIA request also sought records in the possession of the Veterans Administration’s Office of Inspector General relating to the GLA’s alleged destruction of patients’ medical files and examination requests.

The Daily Caller also picked up on this story today, and provided some audio of a November 2008 meeting of the VA’s office in Los Angeles planning the cancellation of orders to improve the wait-list times:

Audio of an internal VA meeting obtained by TheDC confirms that VA officials in Los Angeles intentionally canceled backlogged patient exam requests.

“The committee was called System Redesign and the purpose of the meeting was to figure out ways to correct the department’s efficiency. And one of the issues at the time was the backlog,” Oliver Mitchell, a Marine veteran and former patient services assistant in the VA Greater Los Angeles Medical Center, told TheDC.

“We just didn’t have the resources to conduct all of those exams. Basically we would get about 3,000 requests a month for [medical] exams, but in a 30-day period we only had the resources to do about 800. That rolls over to the next month and creates a backlog,” Mitchell said. ”It’s a numbers thing. The waiting list counts against the hospitals efficiency. The longer the veteran waits for an exam that counts against the hospital as far as productivity is concerned.”

By 2008, some patients were “waiting six to nine months for an exam” and VA “didn’t know how to address the issue,” Mitchell said.

VA Greater Los Angeles Radiology department chief Dr. Suzie El-Saden initiated an “ongoing discussion in the department” to cancel exam requests and destroy veterans’ medical files so that no record of the exam requests would exist, thus reducing the backlog, Mitchell said.

Click here to go to YouTube to listen to the audio

The cover-up extended well into 2009, Judicial Watch argues, and has some documentation to support the claim:

Another document obtained by Judicial Watch in response to its February VA FOIA request included verbatim disclosures and accusations made by Mitchell, then a Patient Services Assistant in the VA’s Radiology Section. The Mitchell memos, repeatedly urging the OIG to act, had not been previously released to the public:

  • May 12, 2009: “From June 2008 to September 2008 the current interim chief stated, ‘Our clinic had the worst performance numbers compared to other VA’s nationwide’… she also stated ‘management stated no MRI orders should be cancelled and/or deleted’ … Shortly thereafter, I noticed that requests for MRIs were being cancelled dating from the year 2000 to November 2008. I approached the current interim chief about this matter in which she responded ‘management was all over her and she had to do something.’”
  • March 24, 2009: “Since my employment within this department I have witnessed ‘valid requests for MRI’s’ being cancelled and/or deleted from the system as a means of reducing the number of requests for MRI’s pending. This has been ongoing since my employment here. It is my opinion that the harassment, death threats and threats of termination I have received are due to my vocal opposition to this practice.”
  • March 24, 2009: “In February 2009 I received via voicemail a complaint from the daughter of a Veteran who stated her father had come to the VA for care and the doctor had submitted a request for a MRI. The daughter expressed great sadness and anger in our process stating her father had suffered from a massive stroke while waiting for his MRI appointment. I informed Dr. [REDACTED] of the voicemail and her response was to give her the request and not speak of the matter, she stated, ‘I already have enough tort claims as it is.’ Shortly after this, I noticed that more request were being deleted from the system.”
  • May 12, 2009: “It is my opinion that this department has not been able to meet its mandated obligations with regards to performance. The administrative process is flawed and has resulted in deaths, continued pain and suffering and an overall decline in Veterans’ health due to the lengthy wait for an MRI.”

“This shows that the Obama administration long knew of the deadly abuse being suffered by our nation’s veterans at the hands of the VA and did nothing about it,” said Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton. “Can you imagine waiting months to have a MRI only to have it cancelled by a government bureaucrat?  The American public should thank Oliver Mitchell for coming forward and blowing this whistle on this deadly corruption.”

If the OIG knew about this and closed the investigation in December 2009, that raises all sorts of questions as to why. Did they not have enough evidence to expose this? If that was the case, then they should have continued the investigation for more than one week. Declaring a finding of insufficient evidence should require a little more effort than a few days between Thanksgiving and the Christmas shopping season. As we now know, the problem was both widespread and deadly.

The entire VA needs a “system redesign,” one that will free veterans to find their own care rather than be held captive in a corrupt system. The OIG might need a “system redesign” as well.

18 Vets Left Off Wait List Have Died

18 Vets Left Off Wait List Have Died

James Alderson - deceased Veterans Affairs VA diedPHOENIX — In a new revelation in the growing VA scandal, the organization’s acting head says that an additional 18 veterans whose names were kept off an official electronic Veterans Affairs appointment list have died.

Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson said Thursday that he would ask the inspector general to see if there is any indication those deaths were related to long wait times. If so, they would reach out to those veterans’ families.

“I will come personally and apologize to the survivors,” Gibson said.

Gibson’s remarks during a visit to Phoenix were the latest related to the scandal over long patient waits for care and falsified records covering up the delays at VA hospitals and clinics nationwide.

Gibson’s announcement came as senior senators reached agreement Thursday on the framework for a bipartisan bill making it easier for veterans to get health care outside VA hospitals and clinics.

The 18 veterans who died were among 1,700 veterans identified in a report last week by the VA’s inspector general as being “at risk of being lost or forgotten. The investigation also found broad and deep-seated problems with delays in patient care and manipulation of waiting lists throughout the sprawling VA health care system, which provides medical care to about 9 million veterans and family members.

Gibson said he does not know whether the 18 new deaths were related to wait times but said they were in addition to the 17 reported last month.

Dept of Veterans Affairs

 

Richard Griffin, the VA’s acting inspector general, told a Senate committee three weeks ago that his investigators had found 17 deaths among veterans awaiting appointments in Phoenix. Griffin said in his report last week the dead veterans’ medical records and death certificates as well as autopsy reports would have to be examined before he could say whether any of them were caused by delays in getting appointments.

The bill announced Thursday by Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., would allow veterans who wait 30 days or more for VA appointments or who live at least 40 miles from a VA hospital or clinic to use private doctors enrolled as providers for Medicare, military Tricare or other government health care programs.

It also would let the VA immediately fire as many as 450 senior regional executives and hospital administrators for poor performance. The bill resembles a measure passed last month by the House but includes a 28-day appeal process omitted by the House legislation.

The bill is a response to a building national uproar over veterans’ health care since a retired clinic director went public in April with accusations that management at the Phoenix VA had instructed staff to keep a secret waiting list to hide delayed care and that as many as 40 patients may have died while waiting for appointments.

Veterans in Phoenix waited an average 115 days for appointments — five times longer than the Phoenix VA had reported, Griffin said. Investigators also have found long waiting times and falsified records covering them up at other VA facilities nationwide, Griffin said. His office is investigating more than 40 of the VA’s 1,700 health care facilities nationwide, including 150 hospitals and 820 clinics.

“Right now we have a crisis on our hands and it’s imperative that we deal with that crisis,” said Sanders.

Both Sanders, the only self-identified socialist in Congress, and McCain, the GOP’s presidential nominee in 2008, had introduced competing bills earlier this week. They announced their agreement on a compromise after two days of closed-door negotiations.

McCain said the bill was “a way to help to relieve this terrible tragedy that has befallen our nation’s veterans.”

The bill also authorizes the VA to lease 26 new health facilities in 18 states and spend $500 million to hire more doctors and nurses. Senate leaders said they hoped to bring the legislation to the floor soon but offered no specifics.

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama’s choice to be the top health official at the VA withdrew his nomination Thursday, saying he feared his confirmation could spark a prolonged political battle.

Jeffrey Murawsky, health care chief for the VA’s Chicago-based regional office, was nominated last month to be the department’s new undersecretary for health care, replacing Robert Petzel, who resigned under pressure. Petzel had been scheduled to retire later this year but was asked to leave early amid a firestorm over delays in patient care and preventable deaths at veterans hospitals.

Murawsky now oversees seven VA hospitals and 30 clinics in Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan, including one in suburban Chicago where there are allegations that its staff used secret lists to conceal long patient waiting times for appointments. Murawsky was a doctor at the Hines, Illinois, hospital and remains on its staff.

In a statement provided to The Associated Press, Murawsky said his withdrawal was “in consideration of recent events, but most importantly in the best interests of serving our nation’s veterans.”

The White House said in a statement that Murawsky feared a prolonged fight over his confirmation, adding that he believed the role was too important not to be filled quickly.

Obama accepted Murawsky’s withdrawal and will move quickly to find a replacement, the White House statement said. The VA is required by law to convene a commission to seek and review candidates for the position, which oversees the Veterans Health Administration.

Robert Jesse, Petzel’s chief deputy, has served as acting undersecretary since Petzel resigned May 16.

Gibson took over the VA temporarily last Friday after former Secretary Eric Shinseki, an ex-Army general, resigned under pressure. Taking care of the 1,700 veterans left off the Phoenix list is his top priority as VA chief, Gibson said during a tour of VA facilities in Phoenix, where the furor started.

— Daly reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Donna Cassata in Washington contributed to this report.

VA cuts D-Day veteran’s benefits to $6 a month

VA cuts D-Day veteran’s benefits to $6 a month

Federal prosecutors involved in VA “Death List” scandal

Federal prosecutors involved in VA “Death List” scandal

shinseki_051514.jpg

May 15, 2014: Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington.AP

The chief watchdog for the Department of Veterans Affairs confirmed this past week that his office is working with federal prosecutors to weigh whether criminal charges are warranted in the health care scandal at a Phoenix VA facility.

VA acting Inspector General Richard J. Griffin, who spoke to lawmakers on Capitol Hill after VA Secretary Eric Shinseki delivered his first public testimony since the scandal broke, vowed to complete an “exhaustive review” and predicted it would be done by around August.

He said that review includes OIG criminal investigators as well as federal prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Arizona and the Public Integrity Section of the Justice Department in Washington, D.C. They are working, he said, to “determine any conduct that we discover that merits criminal prosecution.”

His comments come as some lawmakers call for heads to roll over the burgeoning controversy over patient deaths tied to delayed care. Facing calls for his resignation, Shinseki defended the VA system but vowed to get to the bottom of what happened in Phoenix and elsewhere, and take “all actions necessary.”

“Any allegation, any adverse incident like this makes me mad as hell,” Shinseki said Thursday before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

Lawmakers, though, accused Shinseki of failing to act on repeated warnings about problems with the veterans health care system. He faced bipartisan criticism that his department is falling down on its vital obligation to care for America’s veterans.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. — who represents the state where the scandal broke — said the problems have created a “crisis of confidence.”

“We should all be ashamed,” said McCain, a Vietnam veteran.

Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., who has called for the secretary’s resignation, accused Shinseki of being in “damage control” and not taking the action that is necessary to correct the system.

The scandal at the Phoenix division involved an off-the-books list allegedly kept to conceal long wait times as up to 40 veterans died waiting to get an appointment. Officials were accused of cooking the books to hide the fact that veterans were waiting more than 14 days, the target window.

VA facilities in South Carolina, Florida, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Washington state have also been linked to delays in patient care or poor oversight. An internal probe of a Colorado clinic found that staff had been instructed to falsify records to cover up delayed care at a Fort Collins facility.

Shinseki has urged officials to wait until the inspector general report is completed, as he orders a separate review, but lawmakers voiced concern that this would only lead to further delays.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., called the allegations “deeply disturbing.” “We need more than good intentions,” she said, calling for “decisive action.”

A top Republican also questioned when senior leaders at the Department of Veterans Affairs learned that lower-level workers were “manipulating wait times” for veterans’ health care. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., ranking Republican on the panel, said that the allegations have been surfacing for a while, and information on the problems was available to the secretary a year and a half ago.

“Why were the national audits and statements of concern from the VA only made this month?” he asked, adding that the delayed health care has resulted in “patient harm and patient death.”

Shinseki said the controversy “saddens” him. In his written statement, he said the department “must do better.”

Under questioning from senators, Shinseki still defended the overall management of the VA, calling it a “good system” and claiming that cases where workers were manipulating wait times are “isolated.”

Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., in his opening statement, urged Shinseki’s critics to wait until more details are known, acknowledging the VA health care system has “serious problems” but questioning whether it even has enough resources.

“There has been a little bit of a rush to judgment,” he said.

Meanwhile, Griffin said veteran deaths could be avoided if the VA would focus on its core mission of delivering quality health care. Lawmakers also heard Thursday from a host of veteran advocacy groups — including The American Legion, which has called for Shinseki’s resignation.

American Legion National Commander Daniel Dellinger said in his testimony that the Phoenix scandal was not the only reason the organization called for a leadership change — rather, it was the “final straw.”

Griffin cited deep flaws in the organizational structure of the VA that need to be fixed. Griffin cited seven recent reports that demonstrate problems hindering the VA’s ability to provide quality health care coverage.

Examples include a September 2013 report on a VA hospital in Columbia, S.C., which found thousands of patients had their appointments for colon cancer screenings delayed. He says it found that more than 50 patients had a delayed diagnosis of colon cancer, and some later died. Another report from October 2013 discusses a facility in Memphis, Tenn., where three patients died due to improper emergency room care.

Griffin says it is time for the VA to conduct a review of its systems to determine if there are changes that can be made to improve.

In discussing the current state of VA health care, Shinseki cites numerous examples of ways he says the VA has improved care over the past five years, including improving and expanding care access, working to end veteran homelessness and improving access to mental health services. He says the VA is actively working to improve patient wait times.

The White House has stood behind Shinseki amid calls for him to resign. President Obama announced Wednesday he is assigning his close adviser Rob Nabors to the VA to work on a review focused on policies for patient safety rules and the scheduling of patient appointments.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.