By David Lawder
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The acting chief of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs on Monday pledged to swiftly address medical scheduling abuses at the agency and get thousands of veterans off waiting lists and into clinics for care.
VA Acting Secretary Sloan Gibson, who took over after Eric Shinseki resigned on Friday over the care delay scandal, said he would swiftly address the misconduct or mismanagement that led to cover-ups of long appointment delays for veterans.
"VA's first priority is to get all Veterans off waiting lists and into clinics while we address the underlying issues that have been impeding Veterans' access to healthcare," Gibson said in a statement. "The president has made clear that this is his expectation."
President Barack Obama appointed Gibson to take over the sprawling healthcare and benefits agency while the White House searches for a permanent replacement for Shinseki. Gibson, an Army veteran and former banker, joined the VA in February as deputy secretary after running the USO military service organization.
The management change came as an initial VA internal audit found that nearly two-thirds of VA health facilities surveyed were misrepresenting waiting times for veterans.
The agency's inspector general is conducting probes into 42 separate VA healthcare location and has said that misstatement of waiting times was a widespread problem for the agency.
"Systemic problems in scheduling processes have been exacerbated by leadership failures and ethical lapses. I will use all available authority to swiftly and decisively address issues of willful misconduct or mismanagement," Gibson said.
Without going into specifics of his near-term action plan, he said the VA will work with veterans groups, members of Congress, academia, public and private organizations and other institutions that can help with longer-term reforms.
Congress is already working to give Gibson new authorities, including a measure passed last month by the House of Representatives that would make it easier to fire or demote employees for poor job performance.
In the Senate, Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent who chairs the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, has proposed a broader bill that would provide some additional firing authority but with more protections for employees. It would also expand veterans benefits and authorize emergency funding to hire new doctors.
Republicans are already criticizing Sanders' plan as too ambitious and expensive.
Senator Richard Burr, the top Republican on the committee, said he did not want a "Christmas tree" of new spending for the agency and will introduce a Republican-proposed bill on Tuesday that will be more narrowly targeted to address the VA's healthcare scheduling crisis.
The Republican-proposed bill will adopt the House's tougher language on removing employees, said Burr, who is from North Carolina.
"Money’s not the problem, it’s having a functional VA," Burr said. But if down the road, once we reform it, if they need more money, the Congress will respond to it.”
(Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell)