By David Lawder
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Veterans Administration Secretary Eric Shinseki rejected calls for his resignation as a congressional committee voted to subpoena him on Thursday over charges his department caused deadly delays for veterans' healthcare at some of its hospitals.
The American Legion veterans group and two Republican U.S. senators have called for Shinseki to step down following reports on whistleblowers' claims that up to 40 veterans died while waiting for appointments or specialist care at the VA hospital in Phoenix.
The House Veterans Affairs Committee in a voice vote approved the subpoena ordering Shinseki and other top VA officials to produce all emails and written correspondence sent between April 9 and May 8 related to the disappearance or destruction of a secret patient wait list at the Phoenix hospital.
"The last few weeks have been a model of VA stonewalling, which precipitated the need for a subpoena," said the committee's chairman, Republican Representative Jeff Miller.
Miller said the VA has repeatedly failed to provide information about the wait list to the committee.
In an interview broadcast early Thursday, Shinseki told CBS News he would not quit because he had a job to deliver healthcare to veterans.
"I just want veterans to know that healthcare is something they earned and deserve. We're going to deliver it, it is high-quality and I want them to believe that when they walk into our facilities, they're safe," he said.
Shinseki, a former four-star general in the U.S. Army who lost part of a foot to a land mine during the Vietnam War, added that reports about poor VA healthcare make him "angry." But he did not directly address the allegations surrounding the Phoenix facility.
"All of this makes me angry. Whenever we have allegations like this," he said. "I didn't come here to watch things happen this way. I came here to make things better."
Citing sources, CNN has reported that VA officials covered up long wait times at the Phoenix hospital, with as many as 1,400 veterans placed on a secret waiting list that was later destroyed.
Shinseki has put the director of the Phoenix VA hospital on indefinite leave as the department's inspector general probes the whistleblowers' claims. Two other hospital officials were also put on leave.
On Thursday, he also ordered VA staff to conduct a national audit of patient access conditions and scheduling practices at each of its facilities.
"As part of the review during the next several weeks, a national face-to-face audit will be conducted at all clinics for every VA Medical Center," the department said in a statement.
Shinseki is due to testify before the U.S. Senate Veterans Affairs Committee on May 15 in a hearing on "The State of VA Health Care".
Republican Senators Jerry Moran of Kansas and John Cornyn of Texas earlier this week called for Shinseki to resign.
But House Speaker John Boehner, also a Republican, did not follow suit on Thursday, saying a management change at the top would not solve long-term problems at the VA.
"I'm not ready to join the chorus of people calling for him to step down. The problems at the VA are systemic. It's the backlog," Boehner told his weekly news conference.
The Veterans Affairs Committee subpoena gives the VA until May 19 to respond. The panel will then consider the next steps in its investigation into the matter, a committee aide said.
Veterans Affairs is the biggest U.S. healthcare system, including 1,700 hospitals, clinics and other facilities with nearly 9 million people enrolled.
(Reporting by David Lawder; Editing by G Crosse and J Benkoe)
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