Eric Shinseki, the embattled Secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, pledged during a Senate hearing Thursday to investigate allegations that dozens of service members died while awaiting medical treatment in the U.S.
"Any allegation about any adverse incident like this makes me mad as hell. I could use stronger language here, Mr. Chairman, but in deference to the committee, I won't," Shinseki told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee in Washington.
Shinseki has been under mounting pressure in the wake of a report that at least 40 veterans had died while awaiting appointments at a VA hospital in Phoenix. The report, which alleged that local department officials maintained a secret list to hide lengthy wait times that led to preventable deaths, is part of a pattern of problems for the beleaguered agency, which serves more than 200,000 veterans each day.
Shinseki said little about the allegations, but promised to act "if any of these allegations are true, with regard to scheduling in Phoenix or elsewhere."
The scandal has shaken the White House, where President Barack Obama has directed Shinseki, a retired Army general who has led the VA since 2009, to undertake a review of VA practices. Obama has also tapped top aide Rob Nabors to lead an Administration probe into the allegations of misconduct within the department. "While we get to the bottom of what happened in Phoenix, it's clear the VA needs to do more to ensure quality care for our veterans," Obama said in a statement.
Democrats and Republicans alike battered Shinseki for the department's struggles on his watch. “Clearly this problem has gone on for far too long," said Democratic Senator Patty Murray of Washington. "It is unfortunate that these leadership failures have dramatically shaken many veterans’ confidence in the system. Secretary Shinseki, I continue to believe that you take this seriously and want to do the right thing. But we have come to the point where we need more than good intentions."
As Congressional Republicans demand Shinseki's resignation, some senators cautioned angry observers to wait for the results of the investigation. "What happened in Phoenix?" said Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont who chairs the Senate panel overseeing the VA. "Well, the truth is we don't know. But we are going to find out."