DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley is accusing the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs of lying about wait times for medical appointments at Iowa's VA hospitals, based on documents provided by a whistleblower.
The Iowa Republican said the data shows the agency provided false information to his committee in late February when it said no veterans had been waiting more than 90 days for care earlier this year at the two medical centers.
According to the whistleblower data, which Grassley said the VA has since confirmed as accurate, the Iowa City VA reported 537 veterans waiting for a clinical appointment between 91-180 days, 539 between 181 days to a year, and 232 between one and two years. The other VA hospital, in Des Moines, showed hundreds of others waiting for appointments more than 90 days, Grassley said the documents from mid-February show.
"I would draw the conclusion that they were misleading us because the information was probably embarrassing," Grassley said in an interview Monday with The Associated Press. "It's a crime that veterans are being treated this way."
The VA did not immediately respond to messages.
VA Secretary David Shulkin said in a May 26 letter to Grassley he was disheartened to learn of the contradictory information.
"I assure you that was not our intent and believe this was a case of misunderstanding between VA and committee staff," he wrote.
Grassley said he doesn't believe it was a misunderstanding at all because he said his staff made clear in multiple meetings the information the committee was seeking. He said VA officials eventually acknowledged the whistleblower information was accurate. Grassley responded to Shulkin in a letter on Friday.
"The appearance of an attempt to mislead the committee about the extent of the wait times in these facilities is extremely disturbing," Grassley said.
Grassley said a bill the House passed in March up for debate in the Senate Tuesday evening may help.
It increases the VA's authority to remove employees at all levels of the department and shortens the removal process. It also ensures an individual removed from the VA is not kept on the government payroll while appealing. Shulkin has called for its passage.
Grassley and 13 other senators signed a letter sent in October to Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald seeking answers about why fewer than six employees responsible for patient wait time problems have been fired in the last two years.
The letter cites an inspector general report filed six months ago that says supervisors instructed employees to manipulate patient wait time data in 40 VA medical facilities in 19 states.
The wait times have been a focus for the agency since a 2014 scandal involving delays at the Phoenix VA medical center during which as many as 40 veterans died while waiting months for appointments and it was determined VA personnel had been providing false data on patient wait times.
This story has been corrected to reflect that the senators sent their letter to the VA secretary in October, not Tuesday.