- Associated Press - Thursday, May 29, 2014

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor said Thursday he is outraged over treatment delays within the Veterans Affairs health care system but he is not ready to call for the VA secretary’s resignation over the problems.

The two-term senator from Arkansas told reporters he’s not yet joining the calls for Secretary Eric Shinseki’s ouster following an inspector general’s report that found systemic problems in the VA’s health care system. The report released Wednesday focused on Phoenix’s VA hospital, where investigators said 1,700 veterans in need of care were kept off the official waiting list.

“In terms of Shinseki’s resignation, my view on that is not yet,” Pryor told reporters after a round-table discussion on student loans. “I’m not going to call for that yet.”

Pryor called the treatment delays “inexcusable” but said he wants more details about what Shinseki knew and how widespread the problems are within the VA system. Pryor said he also wants to know whether similar problems exist at veterans’ facilities in Arkansas.

“I want to see how widespread this is, I want to see what else is going on there, I want to get inside the numbers a little bit, not just the big top-line number,” Pryor said. “This is a very serious problem for the veterans administration, and I think over time we’re going to have to see a lot of changes there. That may include changing the secretary and obviously it’s going to include changing a lot of people in Phoenix.”

Pryor’s Republican challenger, U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton, has called for Shinseki to step down and has accused Pryor of being silent on the issue. Pryor’s campaign has accused Cotton of trying to exploit the treatment delays for political gain. Cotton’s campaign had criticized Pryor earlier Thursday for not calling for Shinseki’s resignation.

“It’s also past time for Senator Pryor to join Tom Cotton and members of Congress from both parties in calling on Secretary Shinseki to resign,” Cotton campaign manager Justin Brasell said in a statement.

A growing number of Democratic senators up for re-election this fall have been calling for Shinseki to step down. Pryor’s bid for a third term is expected to be one of the more expensive Senate races in the country, with both campaigns and outside groups spending millions so far in the state.

The calls for Shinseki’s ouster also have grown among the state’s congressional delegation and candidates. Republican U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford on Wednesday night called for Shinseki to step down, and his Democratic challenger, Jackie McPherson, followed suit Thursday. Republican state Rep. Bruce Westerman, who is running for Cotton’s south Arkansas congressional seat, also said Thursday that Shinseki should step down.

Others in the state calling for Shinseki to step down include U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin, and Democratic congressional hopeful Pat Hays.

Sen. John Boozman and Rep. Steve Womack, both Republicans, have stopped short of saying Shinseki should step down. Womack said Thursday that demanding his resignation alone wouldn’t fix problems within the VA.

“We need to get to the root of the problem and hold the responsible VA leadership accountable - up to and including the secretary, if necessary - by relieving them of their duties and replacing them with proven leaders who can ensure our veterans get the care they need and deserve,” Womack said in a statement.


Follow Andrew DeMillo on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo

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