WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Federal officials are investigating an allegation of misconduct at a Veterans Affairs hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio, the latest problem for a scandal-plagued agency that has become a punching bag in the Nov. 8 presidential election campaign.
In 2014, a cover-up of long wait lists and shoddy medical care for veterans at a hospital in Phoenix, Arizona, embarrassed the Obama administration and was seized upon by Republicans in that year’s congressional elections.
The Department of Veterans Affairs on Saturday confirmed the latest investigation but provided no details about the allegation.
“VA takes any allegations of conduct that negatively affect the care of veterans, or that is against our values, very seriously,” the agency said in a statement, noting that the Cincinnati hospital is one of the top 20 VA hospitals for quality of care.
Late on Friday, the VA began alerting lawmakers about its new investigation, two congressional sources said on condition of anonymity. The VA told lawmakers the allegations would soon “hit the news” but provided no details.
“So far, the VA has been very cryptic and given my office few details about what’s going on,” said U.S. Representative Luke Messer, an Indiana Republican whose constituents receive care at the hospital.
“Our veterans deserve better,” Messer said in a statement.
Republican presidential candidates, particularly front-runner Donald Trump, have hammered the government over the VA scandal. Six of the Republican White House hopefuls will participate in a televised debate Saturday evening in South Carolina, a state with several military bases and which holds the next Republican nominating contest on Feb. 20.
The scandal also could hurt Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, who was the chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs committee during the investigation into the hospital in Phoenix.
“We have a moral obligation to provide for the wounded and ensure that all veterans receive every benefit they have earned and deserve,” Sanders said on Twitter on Saturday.
Scripps’ Washington bureau and WCPO, the ABC affiliate in Cincinnati, said on Saturday the federal probe was prompted by their four-month investigation into the hospital’s leadership and allegations of conflicts of interest.
The news organizations are planning to publish their report soon.
The VA’s medical inspector began investigating the Cincinnati center on Feb. 9, a department official said, noting the agency also asked its independent Inspector General to launch a separate investigation.
Oversight of the clinic “will be temporarily realigned” to a VA regional office in Pittsburgh, the official said.
The investigation will be a test for VA Secretary Bob McDonald, a former CEO at Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble who was named by Obama to fix the agency’s problems after its former chief, Eric Shinseki, was forced to resign.
The VA’s Inspector General in 2014 found a “systemic problem” with wait lists for care at hospitals around the country.
At the Phoenix hospital, it found 45 cases where “unacceptable and troubling lapses” in care affected veterans, 28 of whom experienced “clinically significant delays” in treatment. Six of those patients died.
Reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Paul Simao