By David Lawder
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Expressing frustration with a growing controversy over medical care delays for veterans, a prominent U.S. congressman asked President Barack Obama on Tuesday to establish a bipartisan commission to investigate the issue.
Representative Jeff Miller, who chairs the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said the commission was needed because "VA's delays in care problem is growing in size and scope by the day."
Probes into deaths of veterans who were waiting for medical appointments at some VA clinics and hospitals and into allegations of schemes to mask months-long waiting times for care were now beyond the capabilities and resources of the VA's own inspector general's office, the Florida Republican said.
"For nearly a year, we have been pleading with top Department of Veterans Affairs leaders and the president to take immediate steps to stop the growing pattern of preventable veteran deaths and hold accountable any and all VA employees who have allowed patients to slip through the cracks," Miller said in a statement.
"In response, we've received disturbing silence from the White House and one excuse after another from VA," he added.
The agency's inspector general's office is investigating allegations that 40 veterans died last year while waiting for appointments at Phoenix-area VA hospitals and clinics. VA doctors in Phoenix say that many veterans requesting appointments were held on a secret waiting list, some as long as 21 months, until spots could open up on an official list that met the VA's much shorter waiting time goals.
Probes into similar schemes have been reported at VA facilities in Cheyenne, Wyoming; Fort Collins, Colorado; and San Antonio and Austin, Texas.
Miller said precedents exist for such special commissions, including one established by former President George W. Bush in 2007 on care for warriors wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan in response to reports of substandard conditions and mismanagement at the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney on Tuesday reiterated Obama's support for VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.
"The president remains confident that Secretary Shinseki has the ability to lead the department and to take appropriate action based on the (inspector general's) findings," Carney said.
Shinseki is due to address the matter on Thursday in testimony before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)