WASHINGTON - A House committee voted Thursday to subpoena records relating to a waiting list at the Phoenix veterans hospital, and officials said Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki had ordered a nationwide audit of access to care that the agency provides.
Meanwhile, Shinseki brushed aside calls for his resignation and got an unexpected political lifeline from House Speaker John Boehner following reports that 40 patients died because of delayed treatment at an agency hospital.
The American Legion and some in Congress have called for Shinseki's ouster over allegations of patient deaths at the Phoenix VA hospital due to delays in care and of a secret list the hospital kept of patients waiting for appointments to hide the delays.
The House Veterans Affairs Committee voted unanimously to subpoena all e-mails and other records in which Shinseki and other VA officials may have discussed destruction of what the committee called "an alternate or interim waitlist" for veterans seeking care in Phoenix.
A top VA official had told congressional staff last month that the "secret list" referred to in news reports may have been an "interim list" created by the hospital. And the committee had asked the VA on May 1 to answer why it was created, when it was destroyed, who authorized destruction, and under what authority.
Shinseki answered in a letter Wednesday that VA employees used "transitory or interim notes . . . for reference purposes" as they were moving information to the new electronic waitlist system. Regulations of the National Archives and Records Administration require that such notes be destroyed when they are no longer needed for reference, the VA says.
Dissatisfied with that response, the committee subpoenaed all documents relating to the destruction and gave Shinseki until May 19 to produce them. The VA said it will review the subpoena and respond.
Earlier Thursday, Shinseki told CBS that he sent inspectors to Phoenix immediately after he learned of reports about the deaths. "I take every one of these incidents and allegations seriously," he said.
The VA also announced that Shinseki has ordered the Veterans Health Administration to do a "a face-to-face" audit over the next several weeks at all clinics at VA medical centers to make sure employees understand VA policy and the need for continued integrity in managing patient access to care.
And at a Capitol Hill news conference, Boehner (R., Ohio), said: "I'm not ready to join the chorus of people calling on him to step down." He added that there is a "systemic management issue throughout the VA that needs to be addressed."