President Obama plans to meet with embattled Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki on Wednesday morning in the Oval Office, as the White House starts to get more involved in probing allegations that veterans died while waiting for care.
The White House said Obama will meet with Shinseki as well as White House deputy chief of staff, Rob Nabors, who is involved in an internal review. The meeting was listed as an "update on the situation at the Department of Veterans Affairs."
Shinseki, and the White House, have so far rebuffed calls for the secretary to resign. But the controversy is expanding.
The Department of Veterans Affairs Inspector General's Office said late Tuesday that 26 facilities were being investigated nationwide over allegations of manipulated waiting times and other issues.
The disclosure comes as the House of Representatives prepares to vote Wednesday on a bill that would give VA Secretary Eric Shinseki greater authority to fire or demote senior executives.
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.
Republican Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas, a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, told The Associated Press on Tuesday he plans to introduce legislation this week to ensure that internal probes by the VA's Office of Medical Inspector are released to Congress and the public "so the full scope of the VA's dysfunction cannot be disguised."
Moran noted that a VA nurse in Cheyenne, Wyoming, was put on leave this month for allegedly telling employees to falsify appointment records. The action came after an email about possible wait-list manipulation at the Cheyenne hospital was leaked to the media.
But Moran said the Cheyenne center was already the subject of a December 2013 report by Office of the Medical Inspector. That report apparently substantiated claims of improper scheduling practices, but it's unclear if action taken at the Cheyenne center was based on the medical inspector's findings, Moran said.
"Because OMI reports are not available to the public and have not been previously released to Congress, it is impossible to know whether the VA has taken action to implement the OMI's recommendations for improvement in each case," Moran said.
White House Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors is scheduled to travel to Phoenix Thursday 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.
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.
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