WASHINGTON (AP) - Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki would be granted more authority to fire or demote senior executives under a bill headed to the House floor. The measure comes as pressure builds on Capitol Hill to overhaul the beleaguered agency in response to allegations of treatment delays and preventable deaths.
The VA's Office of Inspector General said late Tuesday the number of VA facilities being investigated nationwide for problems had expanded to 26. Acting Inspector General Richard Griffin told a Senate committee last week that 10 facilities were being investigated.
The House bill, being readied for a vote Wednesday, would target about 450 career employees at the VA who serve as hospital directors or executives in the agency's 21 regions.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, sponsored the measure, saying VA officials who have presided over mismanagement or negligence are more likely to receive bonuses or glowing performance reviews than any sort of punishment.
The VA's "widespread and systemic lack of accountability is exacerbating all of its most pressing problems," including revelations that the department maintained secret waiting lists to cover up long delays in patient appointments and a mounting toll of preventable deaths of veterans, Miller said.
Miller accused the VA of a "well-documented reluctance to ensure its leaders are held accountable for mistakes" and said Congress has an obligation to "give the VA secretary the authority he needs to fix things. That's what my bill would do."
Presidential spokesman Jay Carney said the White House shares the goals of the House bill - to ensure accountability at the VA - but was concerned about some of the details.
The House legislation comes as President Barack Obama's choice to help oversee reforms at the VA travels to Phoenix to meet with staff at the VA office where the crisis began after allegations of delayed care that may have led to patient deaths and a cover-up by top administrators.
A former clinic director said that as many as 40 veterans may have died while awaiting treatment at the Phoenix hospital and that staff, at the instruction of administrators, kept a secret list of patients waiting for appointments to hide delays in care.
Investigators probing the claims say they have so far not linked any patient deaths in Phoenix to delayed care.
White House Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors, who was assigned to oversee a review of the VA health care system, will meet Thursday with administrators in Phoenix, including interim director Steve Young, Carney said.
The current director of the Phoenix VA Health Care System, Sharon Helman, has been placed on leave indefinitely while the VA's inspector general investigates the claims raised by several former VA employees.
Shinseki and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel met with the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday to discuss how the Veterans Affairs and Defense departments can improve interactions between their health records systems. The two Cabinet members said in a joint statement that the meeting was productive and said both men share the same goal: to improve health outcomes of active-duty military, veterans and beneficiaries.
Meanwhile, two Republican senators introduced legislation to prohibit payment of bonuses to employees at the Veterans Health Administration through next year. Sens. Richard Burr of North Carolina and Deb Fischer of Nebraska said the VA should focus its spending on fixing problems at the agency, "not rewarding employees entrenched in a failing bureaucracy." Burr is the senior Republican on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and Fischer is on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The House passed a bill in February that would eliminate performance bonuses for the department's senior executive staff through 2018.
Sen. John Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, also called on Obama to back off plans to nominate Jeffrey Murawsky to replace the VA's undersecretary for health care, Robert Petzel, who has stepped down. Murawsky, a career VA administrator, directly supervised Helman from 2010 to 2012.
The White House has said Obama remains confident in Shinseki's leadership and is standing behind Murawsky's nomination.