Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. 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.
The White House skirted questions about whether President Obama still has confidence in Shinseki’s ability to lead the department and a spokesman said the president is withholding judgment about who is responsible for the department’s failings until he reviews pending investigations of what went wrong.
“When it comes to the current situation . . . the president wants to see the results of these reports,” said White House press secretary Jay Carney. “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 and fed widespread speculation that Obama would be forced to replace him.
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 reelection fights, were demanding that he be replaced.
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Late Thursday, Rep. Michael H. Michaud (D-Maine), ranking Democrat on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, also called on Shinseki to step down. The committee’s chairman, Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), has also called on Shinseki to leave office.
With his political support rapidly dwindling, 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.
“He did not give any indication that he’s planning on stepping down,” said Roscoe Butler, a deputy director with the American Legion.
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, who had been put 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.
Shinseki’s promises of quick action didn’t seem to shift opinion among veterans groups. American Legion officials still insisted that he must go. Other groups, including the Disabled American Veterans, praised him. And others offered tentative support.
“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 M. Reid (D-Nev.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) expressed support for Shinseki after speaking with him.
“The problems with the VA are systemic and deep-seated, and must not be tolerated,” Reid said in a statement. 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 on Friday to make his first public statements since the release of the blistering report before the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.
His aides described the speech as a “significant” address. 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 the problems there more quickly than any replacement.
His speech comes on the heels of a day in which six more Senate Democrats — Mary Landrieu (La.), Mark R. Warner (Va.), Timothy M. Kaine (Va.), Tom Udall (N.M.), Martin Heinrich (N.M.) and Jeff Merkley (Ore.) — called on him to step down, joining five others who called for his ouster on Wednesday.
“I have a mountain of respect for what General Shinseki has done in service to our country,” Heinrich said Thursday. But he added that Obama needs to appoint “a new secretary who will provide the leadership and management that our nation’s veterans need and deserve.”
Shinseki has held on to the support of some key lawmakers such as House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who said he will “continue to reserve judgement” on the secretary.
“Is him resigning going to get us to the bottom of the problem? Is it going to help us find what’s really going on? And the answer I keep getting is no,” he said, adding that Obama also should be held accountable.
“The president is going to need to step up here and show some real leadership,” Boehner told reporters. Although Shinseki has spent time talking to Democrats, senior GOP aides were unaware Thursday of any communication between the secretary and top Republican leaders.
The VA inspector general’s 35-page interim report found that patients at the Phoenix VA hospital had to wait an average of 115 days for a first appointment, a period officials allegedly tried to hide by placing veterans on “secret lists” until an appointment could be found in the appropriate time frame.
The VA scandal and calls for Shinseki’s firing have hit many of his fellow Army officers particularly hard. The retired general, who clashed with the George W. Bush administration over the number of troops it would take to stabilize Iraq, is still viewed with reverence among many in the Army.
“There is no way he had any idea this was going on. Someone let him down,” said retired Gen. Peter Chiarelli, who served with Shinseki and now focuses on mental health issues among soldiers and veterans. Chiarelli said he thinks Shinseki will fix the problems in his department, if given the time. “I love the man,” he said. “I have seen him soldier through problems like this before.”
Josh Hicks, Wesley Lowery and Paul Kane contributed to this report.