Lawmakers call for Shinseki’s resignation from VA

Frances Sprouls

MATTHEW DALY
Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Support for Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki eroded quickly on Thursday, especially among congressional Democrats facing tough re-election campaigns.

Shinseki spoke privately with lawmakers and met with nearly two dozen veterans groups, assuring them that he takes the reports seriously and is moving swiftly to fix problems. On Friday, he will address the National Coalition on Homeless Veterans, outlining his plans for corrections.

A federal investigation of operations in the troubled Phoenix VA Health Care System found that about 1,700 veterans in need of care were “at risk of being lost or forgotten” after being kept off an official waiting list.

While initially focused on Phoenix, the investigation described by the VA Department’s inspector general on Wednesday found broad and deep-seated problems in the sprawling health care system, which provides medical care to about 6.5 million veterans annually.

The interim report confirmed earlier allegations of excessive waiting times for care in Phoenix, with an average 115-day wait for a first appointment for those on the waiting list — nearly five times as long as the 24-day average the hospital had reported.

House Speaker John Boehner and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said they were reserving judgment about Shinseki. But with the situation threatening to affect congressional elections in November, the chorus of lawmakers calling for his departure grew by the hour.

Democratic Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine of Virginia, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Jeff Merkley of Oregon and New Mexico’s Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich all urged Shinseki to step aside. Eleven Senate Democrats have called for Shinseki’s resignation since Wednesday, when the VA inspector general report came out. All but Heinrich are on the ballot this fall.

White House press secretary Jay Carney declined to say whether President Barack Obama still has full confidence in Shinseki, who has led the VA since the start of the Obama administration. The president is waiting for a full investigation into the VA before deciding who should be held accountable, Carney said.

The American Legion and dozens of Republicans have called for Shinseki to resign, including Jeff Miller of Florida, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, and Richard Burr of North Carolina, senior Republican on the Senate veterans panel.

The congressional calls for Shinseki’s resignation were mixed with criticism of a bonus system at the VA that has rewarded officials for meeting performance targets that proved to be unreasonable, including a maximum two-week waiting period for first-time appointments.

At the VA, the inspector general described a process in which schedulers ignored the date that a provider or veteran wanted for an appointment. Instead, the scheduler selected the next available appointment and used that as the baseline, resulting in a false zero-day wait time.

Thomas Lynch, an administrator at the Veterans Health Administration, an arm of the VA, said at the hearing that the bonus system had had an unintended negative effect.

“Our performance measures have become our goals, not tools to help us understand where we needed to invest resources,” he told the House Veterans Affairs Committee. “We undermined the integrity of our data.”

A VA official said Shinseki met with leaders of 23 military and veterans service organizations. Shinseki told the groups that the findings in the IG report were reprehensible, and said he has directed the agency to immediately contact each of the 1,700 veterans waiting for primary care appointments in Phoenix, the official said.

Shinseki is expected to release results as soon as Friday of a system-wide audit of scheduling policy and practices.

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