WASHINGTON – The nation’s largest veterans organization and senior Republican senators are calling for the resignation of Gen. Eric Shinseki as head of the Department of Veterans Affairs, prompted by reports of lagging services and blockbuster allegations about veteran deaths in Phoenix.
But Shinseki still enjoys the support of Sen. Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader from Nevada who says the Cabinet member should be commended and not criticized as he attempts to lead an agency beset by challenges brought on by the end of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Reid said Shinseki was a “fine man” who was handed a “tremendous burden” at the VA, an agency charged with providing health care and benefits for veterans, including millions returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with severe injuries and post-traumatic stress disorders.
The American Legion, the largest veterans group, on Monday called for Shinseki to step down following allegations that 40 veterans died while waiting for care at the veterans hospital in Phoenix. Several doctors have said some of the veterans were put on a secret list created by the hospital to cover up the long wait times to schedule appointments.
VA officials say a preliminary investigation failed to turn up evidence of a secret list, while the matter is being investigated by the agency’s Office of Inspector General.
The House Committee on Veterans Affairs said Monday it has received similar reports that a VA outpatient clinic in Fort Collins, Colo., had manipulated patient schedules.
An inspector general’s report about the VA Medical Center in North Las Vegas last week said the agency struggled to keep pace with patient demand for emergency room care. That report was prompted by stories in the Las Vegas Review-Journal about a blind elderly patient suffering from stomach pain who waited almost five hours to see a doctor and was not checked periodically as required by hospital procedure.
“The issue that came up in Phoenix. Those are allegations and there will be a complete investigation of what has gone on,” Reid said. “Whether that is substantiated or not, I don’t know, but it certainly doesn’t call for the general to resign.”
The Nevada senator added some of the VA’s burden was generated by Congress ordering the agency to the revamp its record keeping.
“So (Shinseki) is trying to do all this,” Reid said. “He is a fine man and a dedicated patriot to our country.”
The reports of problems at VA medical facilities come on top of the VA’s continuing struggle to reduce a disability claims backlog that stood at 686,861 as of this week, including 403,761 outstanding more than 125 days. The agency’s regional office in Reno was found to be the slowest to process claims, at 425 days according to a report issued in March by Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., and other members of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs.
Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., said Tuesday he was unhappy with Shinseki’s response to VA problems in Nevada but stopped just short of calling for his resignation.
“In February, Secretary Shinseki promised me that changes would be made in Nevada,” Heller said in a statement, referring to a management shakeup at the Reno regional office.
“I’m disappointed that several months have passed, and still nothing has changed,” Heller said. “Someone needs to be held accountable. If changes aren’t going to be made at the local level to address the problems plaguing the VA system in Nevada, then we should look for changes at the top.”
Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., said while the allegations surrounding the Phoenix VA hospital are disturbing, “we must wait for the IG investigation findings before we can determine the best course of action.”
Likewise, Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., said he was reserving judgment.
Shinseki “inherited a broken bureaucracy that was woefully unprepared to handle the volume and complexity of claims we are seeing,” Heck said. “My concern is that it it is not necessarily a change in leadership that is going to fix the issue, it is changing the bureaucracy.”
Heck noted a VA management bill making its way through Congress would make it easier for the secretary to fire and discipline senior executives for performance. Now, Heck said, “his hands are tied.”
Other Republicans said Tuesday it is time for Shinseki to go.
“It certainly has been an embarrassing period for the VA,” said Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the Senate Republican leader who said the agency has yet to break ground on a hospital in Louisville, Ky., that was announced eight years, ago.
“It’s been a stunning period of dysfunction.” he said. “The complaints have mounted. All of us are hearing them. It’s really a sad and tragic story, and obviously a change in leadership might be a step in the right direction.”
Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Jerry Moran, R-Kan., added calls for Shinseki to resign.
Shinseki has not commented on the calls for his resignation. White House press secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday President Barack Obama “remains confident” in the VA secretary.
“We must ensure that our nation’s veterans get the benefits and the services that they deserve and they have earned,” Carney said. “The president remains confident in Secretary Shinseki’s ability to lead the department and to take appropriate action based on the IG’s findings.”
A statement issued by the VA on Monday said the agency “takes any allegations about patient care or employee misconduct very seriously. If the VA Office of Inspector General’s investigation substantiates allegations of employee misconduct, swift and appropriate action will be taken. Veterans deserve to have full faith in their VA care.
“Under the leadership of Secretary Shinseki and his team, VA has made strong progress in recent years to better serve veterans both now and in the future,” the statement said. “The secretary knows there is more work to do.”
Contact Stephens Washington Bureau chief Steve Tetreault at 202-783-1760 or at STetreault@stephensmedia.com. Follow @STetreaultDC on Twitter