WASHINGTON – Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki made an impassioned case Thursday to Democratic lawmakers and veterans groups that he can repair the Department of Veterans Affairs, even as calls for his resignation mounted and support from the White House appeared to wane.
President Barack Obama is withholding judgment about who is responsible for the department’s failings until he reviews pending investigations of what went wrong.
The president wants to see the results of these reports, White House press secretary Jay Carney said. He believes there ought to be accountability once we establish all the facts.
Shinseki’s outreach came in the wake of an independent review by the inspector general that found that VA officials throughout the medical system had falsified records to hide the amount of time veterans had to wait for medical appointments.
The allegations that VA officials were using elaborate schemes to hide long waiting times date back as far as 2010. The preliminary report’s findings, however, triggered a new flurry of calls for Shinseki’s resignation on the Hill.
By late Thursday, one-fifth of the Senate Democratic caucus had called for Shinseki’s ouster and at least two dozen House Democrats, most of them locked in difficult re-election fights, were demanding that he be replaced.
Shinseki worked to hold on to the support of major veterans groups, which with the exception of the American Legion have backed him during the crisis.
In an hour-long meeting with veterans groups Thursday, Shinseki outlined plans to hold accountable VA employees who falsified waiting-list records and said VA will ensure that 1,700 veterans in Phoenix, whose names were among those kept on unofficial waiting lists, receive immediate care.
Shinseki also acknowledged that he had been too trusting of the information he received from VA hospital employees and that during his 38-year military career, he always thought he could trust reports from the field.
Internal VA audits of 216 health care centers have largely confirmed the inspector general’s findings of systemic efforts by VA employees to cover up long waits for medical care, according to the veterans groups that met with the secretary.
The question for all of us remains: How will he address the breach of trust between veterans and the VA? said Derek Bennett, the chief of staff for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
What does accountability mean? Does it mean firing people, demoting them, moving them? I am still waiting to see what action follows the verbiage.
During his calls to Democratic lawmakers, Shinseki reiterated his outrage about the findings in the inspector general’s report, laid out his plans to fix VA, and asked lawmakers for their advice on strategy and politics.
The lawmakers, including some of Shinseki’s strongest supporters, conveyed in the strongest terms possible the need for the secretary to exert strong leadership and immediately address suggested reforms in the watchdog report, said a congressional aide familiar with the calls.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., expressed support for Shinseki after speaking with him. Pelosi told reporters that getting rid of Shinseki only rewards those who have misled him on the scope of the problems across the department.
Pelosi and other Democrats endorsed calls by House Republicans to pass new legislation that would allow VA-eligible veterans to seek medical care at private facilities if department-run facilities cannot schedule appointments within a month’s time.
Shinseki, a career military officer known for his reticence with the news media and quiet, steady demeanor, plans to address the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans today in his first public statements since the release of the inspector general’s review. His aides described the speech as significant.
To keep his job, the retired general will have to convince veterans, lawmakers and the White House that his knowledge of VA, amassed over the past five years, will help him fix problems more quickly than any replacement.
Shinseki has held on to the support of some key lawmakers such as House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who said he will continue to reserve judgement.
Is him resigning going to get us to the bottom of the problem? The answer I keep getting is no, he said, adding that Obama also should be held accountable.