WASHINGTON -- The Department of Veterans Affairs is working with federal prosecutors to determine whether criminal violations occurred at a medical center in Phoenix accused of falsifying data or creating secret waiting lists intended to hide monthslong delays for veterans to see doctors, the agency's acting inspector general told a Senate committee Thursday.
The disclosure by acting Inspector General Richard Griffin, whose agency is carrying out its own inquiry, is the first official indication prosecutors have taken an interest in the controversy, which has spread in recent weeks to include facilities in Texas, Colorado and other states. The issue has angered veterans' groups and prompted several Republican senators to call for the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki.
At a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing, Mr. Griffin said he could not offer many details about the agency's investigation because "part of this review could lead to criminal charges," and he did not want to impede that process. Yet Mr. Griffin also indicated the most serious allegations -- that as many as 40 veterans died because of delays in treatment while they were on illicit waiting lists in Phoenix -- had not been verified.
Investigators were examining circumstances surrounding the deaths of patients on several lists from Phoenix, he said, and at this point they had made their way through only one list, which included the names of 17 veterans who had died.
"On those 17, we didn't conclude, so far, that the delay caused the deaths," he said. "It's one thing to be on a waiting list, and it's another thing to conclude that as a result of being on the waiting list, that's the cause of death."
Another inspector general's office official, John Daigh, said the medical center failed to meet quality standards in several cases and that some patients had been harmed, but that to draw conclusions "between patient harm and death has so far been a tenuous connection."
Mr. Griffin also suggested his final report, not expected until August, would confirm the Phoenix medical center did not accurately record the waiting times of patients.
The statements by Mr. Griffin, at the end of a long hearing about medical treatment at VA centers, turned out to be the most significant testimony on a day that had been billed as Mr. Shinseki's first real public test since allegations of doctored waiting lists began to surface last month. Reports of the waiting lists represent a political risk for the Obama administration, which on the eve of Thursday's hearing sent a top White House adviser to monitor the department as it struggles to deal with fallout.
Earlier Thursday, Mr. Shinseki, an unflappable, retired four-star Army general, testified that allegations about waiting lists being manipulated "makes me mad as hell."
Under questioning by committee chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., about whether VA employees were "cooking the books" by keeping fraudulent lists, Mr. Shinseki said he was aware of only "a number of isolated cases where there is evidence of that. But the fact that there is evidence in a couple of cases behooves us to take a thorough look."