- Associated Press - Thursday, May 29, 2014

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) - U.S. Sen. Mark Begich was reserving judgment on whether Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki should resign amid allegations of problems, including delayed medical care, at VA facilities across the country.

During a news conference Thursday in Anchorage, Begich said problems found within the VA system in Arizona are outrageous. He said people responsible in that situation should be held accountable and the Justice Department brought in if necessary. He said if the problems are found to be more widespread, with a report on wait lists pending, “everywhere from top down needs to be dealt with and held accountable. That means from Shinseki on down.”

But he said a focus needs to be on fixing the problem. “Just getting rid of people does not fix the problem. And also, how quickly will we replace those people?” Begich said. “Because we’ve got to continue to fix this problem otherwise veterans will be without care.”

The Alaska Democrat is seeking re-election in what is expected to be a hotly contested race, the result of which could help decide control of the Senate. At least one of his Republican rivals, Dan Sullivan, has called for Shinseki to resign and said Begich should demand that as well. The Karl Rove-backed Crossroads GPS announced an ad launch Wednesday suggesting that Begich, who serves on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, hasn’t done enough in response to problems within the VA. Begich’s campaign responded by blasting the group for politicizing the issue.

An inspector general’s investigation of the Phoenix VA Health Care System found 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 the Phoenix hospital, the investigation - an interim report of which was recently released - also found systemic problems in the VA’s nationwide system.

Begich said he was proud of the work the VA does in Alaska. “In my view, we have pretty good service,” he said.

Alaska is an example for how the VA could work around the country, he said, with initiatives that allow for local health centers to provide veterans care and for veterans in rural areas to access care through tribal clinics and hospitals.

He said wait times for primary care have been cut dramatically since problems were identified several years ago.

Susan Yeager, director of the Alaska VA Health Care System, said the VA nationwide had teams come out to review scheduling processes. She said the informal report the Alaska VA got back was that “our people are scheduling the right way.”