By David Lawder
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki on Thursday vowed "timely action" to deal with allegations that some VA medical centers covered up long waiting times for chronically-ill veterans seeking care but said he saw no evidence the practice was widespread.
Shinseki, appearing before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said allegations that 40 veterans died while waiting for appointments in Phoenix while months-long waiting times were kept under wraps made him "mad as hell."
VA doctors in Phoenix have alleged that managers ordered them to hold patients on a secret waiting list until appointments opened up on an official list that met the agency's waiting time goals.
Asked if the practice of "cooking the books" was widespread among VA centers, Shinseki said: "I'm not aware, other than a number of isolated cases, where there is evidence of that."
The former four-star Army general said the VA's Office of the Inspector General would get to the bottom of the Phoenix allegations, and a system-wide review of appointment scheduling practices would address any complaints at facilities elsewhere.
"If they are substantiated by OIG, responsible, timely action will be taken," Shinseki said.
Allegations have been reported about similar coverup schemes at VA medical facilities in at least seven other cities. The agency is the largest U.S. healthcare group, with some 1,700 hospitals, clinics, nursing homes and other facilities.
Senators expressed frustration over the scandal and said veterans deserved a quick fix.
"We have more than allegations, at this point. We have evidence, solid evidence of wrongdoing within the VA system, and it is more than an isolated instance," said Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, adding that the actions were "potentially a criminal act."
Senator Jerry Moran of Kansas, who has called for Shinseki's ouster, said the VA's actions and planned audit of clinic scheduling practices seemed more like damage control than a serious effort to fix things. "The problem is more investigations will tell us the same information - furthering delays in actually fixing the problems," he said.
President Barack Obama has repeatedly voiced support for Shinseki but the political tide could turn if Shinseki fails to take decisive action. On Wednesday night, Obama said he would send a top aide, deputy White House chief of staff Rob Nabors, to help the VA deal with the issues.
Asked why he had not already resigned over the crisis, Shinseki, now in his sixth year leading the VA, said his mission to transform the agency to better care for veterans was incomplete. But representatives of veterans groups said they wanted results, and Shinseki was not yet delivering them.
"We want a proactive secretary not a reactive one," Tom Tarantino, policy director for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, told the Senate panel.
(Additional reporting by David Alexander and Susan Heavey; Editing by Bill Trott and Tom Brown)