The pressure brought by Congress to get to the bottom of the massive wait-list fraud at the Department of Veterans Affairs has prompted the FBI to open a criminal probe, at least of the offices in Phoenix which were the epicenter of the scandal. FBI Director James Comey revealed that the agency has begun working with the VA’s Inspector General on its probe, sharing data and collecting evidence to determine whether prosecution will take place. Whether that FBI probe extends beyond Phoenix depends on what the IG finds elsewhere, Comey told a House panel:
The FBI says it has opened a criminal investigation of the Veterans Affairs Department, which is grappling with a scandal over long waiting lists to provide care and allegations that paperwork was faked to make delays appear shorter.
FBI Director James Comey told a House hearing on Wednesday the bureau’s Phoenix office has joined an ongoing review by the VA inspector general.
The move at least partly satisfies requests from key members of Congress from both parties who have pressed for a full probe by the Justice Department as the scandal accelerated in recent weeks and led to the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki in May.
The number of facilities now under investigation by the IG has increased to 69, so the FBI may be very busy indeed. The indications from the VA’s own internal investigation is that the fraud was endemic, and that’s just not going to be possible without some direction from the main office. Anderson Cooper got an update from Drew Griffin last night after the hearing concluded:
Also, Jake Tapper reports that two members of Congress now accuse the VA of obstructing their own probe into the VA scandal:
After stories emerged of long waiting lists for veterans trying to get appointments for health care within the VA system, on May 28, Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pennsylvania, received an unusual phone call from Pittsburgh VA director and CEO Terry Gerigk Wolf and deputy director David Cord, sources tell CNN.
Cord told Murphy, the congressman says, that an internal audit indicated that the Pittsburgh VA “passed with flying colors,” with the exception of those veterans seeking appointments in podiatry.
“I don’t believe that,” Murphy said, according to people on the call.
Murphy says he was taken off guard by the phone call. Officials with the Pittsburgh VA – which has had significant problems in the past, with an outbreak of Legionnaire’s Disease in 2011 and 2012 that left at least six veterans dead – never independently picks up the phone to call him, his staffers say.
“It is my belief the purpose of the unannounced call was not to provide me the facts on patient wait times at the Pittsburgh VA, but was a smokescreen to prevent me from understanding what exactly was going on there,” Murphy told CNN. “I’ve heard the ‘all is okay’ message in midst of management failures too many times from the VA to believe it on face value ever again.”
The congressman compared notes with his fellow western Pennsylvanian, Democratic Rep. Mike Doyle.
Doyle said that Wolf had told him something quite different – that Pittsburgh had up to 700 patients on this wait list, called the NEAR (New Enrollee Appointment Request) List, for veterans enrolling for the first time. Some of these veterans had been waiting years for their first appointment.
Doyle and Murphy say they called Wolf, who told them she knew about the list three weeks before, but was told not to inform the congressional delegation about it for fear she would be fired for disclosing the information.
As the FBI formally enters the scandal for the first time, the Senate passed the Sanders-McCain reform act by a 93-3 vote. The House has passed a similar bill unanimously, and the normal means to reconcile the two will be a conference committee. How formal that process will need to be remains to be seen:
Some differences will have to be reconciled, but lawmakers and aides expect that can be done without a lengthy formal conference and predicted that each chamber will simply moderately alter their bills to clear both the House and Senate. Both chambers have taken slightly different paths on how to fire incompetent VA executives, for example, with the Senate concerned the House is removing due process from firing decisions.
But on health care, there is not much daylight between the two proposals. The Senate’s bill boosts hiring of doctors and nurses, authorizes the leasing of 27 new VA medical facilities and allow veterans to seek private health care outside the VA system if necessary — provisions mostly in line with the House-passed bill. Adding to the VA momentum, the White House issued a statement on Wednesday supporting the Senate’s bill.
Even small differences might be easier to bridge in conference, rather than have amendments go through normal order to bring the language into concordance in each chamber. The point, though, is that this is moving fast — and that speed puts pressure on the VA and the FBI to move with haste as well.
Speaking of pressure, Barack Obama’s certainly getting some for his handling of the scandal too:
As the situation continues to unfold at the VA, 29% of all Americans say they approve of the way Obama is handling the situation involving veterans at VA hospitals, with 63% disapproving. When asked to rate the president on a variety of issues, more Americans approve of his handling of other issues, including the environment (47%), terrorism (42%), and the release of U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl (38%). While approval is not high on any of these matters, the rather low rating of Obama’s handling of the VA scandal is significant, especially paired with how closely Americans are following the issue.
Gallup notes that it’s not impacting his overall approval rating … yet. It’s certainly not helping it, though.