Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., right, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, confers with Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, the ranking member, left, as the panel holds a hearing to examine why thousands of military veterans have been waiting for up to three months for medical appointments, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, June 9, 2014. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
WASHINGTON (AP) — Patients enduring long waits for care at Veterans Affairs Department facilities could get VA-paid treatment from local doctors under a bipartisan bill the House seemed likely to approve Tuesday.
The vote was coming as the embattled agency continued reeling from mounting evidence that workers fabricated data on veterans' waits for medical appointments in an effort to mask frequent, long delays. A VA audit this week showed that more than 57,000 new patients had to wait at least three months for initial appointments.
"We have a systemic failure of an entire department of our government," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters hours before his chamber was expected to give overwhelming support to the legislation.
Among the questions Congress is trying to answer is "how much knowledge those in Washington at the VA had about what was going on at some of these facilities, and we're trying get to bottom of all of this," Boehner said.
At an unusual Monday evening hearing of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, a top VA official acknowledged "an integrity issue here among some of our leaders."
Philip Matkovsky, a top VA official who helps oversee its administrative operations, told the committee about patients' long waits and efforts to hide them, "It is irresponsible, it is indefensible, and it is unacceptable. I apologize to our veterans, their families and their loved ones."
Matkovsky's apology echoed acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson's contrition shortly after he replaced Eric Shinseki atop the agency. President Barack Obama accepted Shinseki's resignation on May 30, but that has not stopped the uproar over veteran's care from becoming an embarrassment for the Obama administration and a potential political liability for congressional Democrats seeking re-election in November.
Matkovsky did not specify which VA officials had questionable integrity. The agency has started removing top officials at its medical facility in Phoenix, a focal point of the department's problems, and investigators have found indications of long waits and falsified records of patients' appointments at hundreds of facilities.
Asked by Veterans Affairs panel Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., whether officials at the agency's main office had ordered manipulation of patients' data, Matkovsky said he was not aware of that, adding, "I certainly hope they have not."
Richard Griffin, acting VA inspector general, told lawmakers his investigators were probing for wrong-doing at 69 agency medical facilities, up from 42 two weeks ago. He said he has discussed evidence of manipulated data with the Justice Department, which he said was still considering whether crimes occurred.
"Once somebody loses his job or gets criminally charged, it will no longer be a game and that will be the shot heard around the system," Griffin said.
The VA drew intensified public attention two months ago with reports of patients dying while awaiting agency care and cover-ups at the Phoenix center. The VA, the country's largest health care provider, serves almost 9 million veterans.
The House bill, sponsored by Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., would let veterans facing delayed appointments or living more than 40 miles from a VA facility get care from non-agency providers for the next two years.
It would also ban bonuses for all VA employees through 2016 and require an independent audit of agency health care. An earlier House-passed bill would make it easier to fire top VA officials.
Senators have written a similar bipartisan bill, which Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said his chamber will consider "as soon as it is ready."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the chamber should debate the bill immediately, instead of first considering a Democratic measure letting borrowers refinance student loans at lower rates.
"Veterans have been made to wait long enough at these hospitals. Congress shouldn't keep them in the waiting room by putting partisan games ahead of solutions," McConnell said.
On Monday, the VA released an internal audit showing more than 57,000 new patients had to wait at least three months for initial appointments. It also found that over the past decade, nearly 64,000 newly enrolled veterans requesting appointments never got one, though it was unclear how many still wanted VA care.
The audit covered 731 VA medical facilities. It said 13 percent of scheduling employees said they'd been instructed to enter falsified appointment dates, and 8 percent used unofficial appointment lists, both practices aimed at improving agency statistics on patient wait times.
As a result, the agency said it was ordering further investigations at 112 locations where interviews revealed indications of fabricated scheduling data or of supervisors ordering falsified lists.
Gibson, the acting VA secretary, directed several steps to address Monday's audit, including a short-term boost in medical services at overburdened facilities, including using mobile units.
The agency has contacted 50,000 veterans awaiting appointments and plans to reach 40,000 others to accelerate care, letting them choose VA treatment or local non-VA health-care providers.
Associated Press writer Matthew Daly contributed to this report.
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