The nation’s largest veterans group on Monday called for the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki and two of his top administrators due to alleged issues with quality of care and cover-ups at some of the agency’s medical centers.
The American Legion said it will formally ask President Obama to remove Shinseki from office, along with Undersecretary for Health Robert Petzl and Undersecretary for Benefits Allison Hickey.
Shinseki, a former Army general and Vietnam veteran with two Purple Hearts, has headed the VA since January 2009.
“His patriotism and sacrifice for this nation are above reproach,” said American Legion national commander Daniel Dellinger. “However, his record as head of the Department of Veterans Affairs tells a different story. It’s a story of poor oversight and failed leadership.”
The White House indicated Monday that President Obama will stand behind the VA chief, noting in a statement that the VA’s inspector general is investigating the alleged problems.
“The president remains confident in Secretary Shinseki’s ability to lead the department and to take appropriate action based on the IG’s findings,” the White House said in a statement.
The Veterans of Foreign Wars also disagreed with the American Legion, calling for strong action from Shinseki and greater congressional oversight rather than resignations.
“It is paramount that Secretary Shinseki get publicly in front of this immediately to address the valid concerns of veterans and their families, and to reestablish the credibility of the entire VA health and benefits systems, and that of his own office,” VFW national commander William Thien said in a statement.
VA spokesman Drew Brookie defended Shinseki’s record, noting that the department has enrolled 2 million former troops into the VA health-care system, reduced its longstanding disability claims by 44 percent and lowered veterans homelessness by 24 percent during his tenure.
“Secretary Shinseki has dedicated his life to his fellow Veterans, and nobody is more committed to completing the work that lies ahead,” Brookie said.
The Legion’s action on Monday followed multiple reports of preventable deaths and attempts to cover up treatment delays at VA health clinics. At least two whistleblowers have said a Phoenix VA hospital developed a “secret waiting list” to hide delays, possibly affecting dozens of patients who died while waiting for care.
Similarly, a new report from the VA’s Office of the Medical Inspector said a department clinic in Fort Collins, Colo., falsified appointment records to give the impression that staff doctors had seen patients within the agency’s goal of 14 days. USA Today first revealed the findings in an article on Sunday.
Dellinger mentioned other issues on Monday, including a deadly Legionnaires’ disease outbreak at a Pittsburgh VA hospital in 2012 and claims that mismanagement led to three deaths at an Atlanta clinic. An inspectors general report said the Atlanta center was not sufficiently addressing patient safety.
The VA responded to the Phoenix allegations by placing three of its executives on administrative leave “until further notice.” The department’s inspector general has also launched an investigation, and Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has promised a congressional hearing on the matter once the review is complete.
“We believe it is important to allow an independent, objective review to proceed,” Shinseki said in a statement last week. “These allegations, if true, are absolutely unacceptable, and if the Inspector General’s investigation substantiates these claims, swift and appropriate action will be taken.”
Sanders indicated Monday that he does not support removing Shinseki from office. “While it might be temporarily satisfying to call for firing someone, it doesn’t get us any closer to the truth or solve problems that may exist,” he said in a statement.
The House last week passed legislation that would ban bonuses for senior VA executives in response to the department’s recent troubles. Rep. tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.), who sponsored the measure, said it is necessary because of “systematic leadership failures.”
The VA pushed back against the proposed bonus restrictions, saying the department must “remain competitive to recruit and retain the best people” to ensure quality service.
Demands for new leadership are nothing new to the VA. Last year, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) and Concerned Veterans for America called for Shinseki to resign, and House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) said the agency should fire Hickey.
Miller said in a statement on Monday that he has “the utmost respect” for Dellinger, but that he would wait until the inspector general’s review is complete to decide whether resignations are warranted. He added that the American Legion’s request should be “sending shock waves through the White House.”
President Obama last week addressed the Phoenix allegations while touring the Philippines, saying his administration has continuously demonstrated its commitment to former troops by calling for more VA funding.
The White House’s 2015 budget proposal asks Congress to allocate $56 billion for veteran medical care. That amount would represent a nearly 3 percent increase compared to the enacted level of funding for those programs in 2014.
The American Legion has not called for the resignation of a U.S. official since 1941, when the group urged former Labor Secretary Frances Perkins to step down.
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