WASHINGTON (AP) — Patients enduring long waits for care at Veterans Affairs Department facilities could get VA-paid treatment from local doctors under a bipartisan bill the House seemed likely to approve Tuesday.
The vote was coming as the embattled agency continued reeling from mounting evidence that workers fabricated data on veterans' waits for medical appointments in an effort to mask frequent, long delays. A VA audit this week showed that more than 57,000 new patients had to wait at least three months for initial appointments.
"We have a systemic failure of an entire department of our government," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters hours before his chamber was expected to give overwhelming support to the legislation.
Among the questions Congress is trying to answer is "how much knowledge those in Washington at the VA had about what was going on at some of these facilities, and we're trying get to bottom of all of this," Boehner said.
At an unusual Monday evening hearing of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, a top VA official acknowledged "an integrity issue here among some of our leaders."
Philip Matkovsky, a top VA official who helps oversee its administrative operations, told the committee about patients' long waits and efforts to hide them, "It is irresponsible, it is indefensible, and it is unacceptable. I apologize to our veterans, their families and their loved ones."
Matkovsky's apology 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.
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.