- The Washington Times - Monday, May 5, 2014

The head of the American Legion on Monday took the extraordinary step of calling for the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki and two top deputies in the wake of reports that dozens of veterans have died while waiting to receive medical attention at a VA facility in Phoenix.

Mr. Shinseki’s record at the Department of Veterans Affairs since 2009 has been a story of “poor oversight and failed leadership,” said American Legion Commander Daniel Dellinger, adding that Robert Petzel, the Veterans Department’s undersecretary for health, and Allison Hickey, the undersecretary for benefits should also step down.

Stories that VA officials concealed details of the waiting list and treatment problems in order to make their official results look better have rocked the agency. Last week, Mr. Petzel assured the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee during a hearing in Washington that no veterans have died while on a patient wait list.

But Mr. Dellinger rejected that claim Monday, saying that by the American Legion’s tally, there have actually been at least 23 preventable deaths to date.

Mr. Dellinger told The Washington Times in an interview Monday that the Legion’s national executive committee is now working on a resolution calling for the ouster of Mr. Shinseki, Mr. Petzel and Ms. Hickey.

A majority of the national executive committee would have to agree to the resolution for it to pass. The American Legion is the nation’s leading non-government veterans organization and if the resolution passes, the three officials would be under significant pressure to step down, Mr. Dellinger said.

Such a formal call for the removal of Veterans Affairs officials is rare. Mr. Dellinger noted that this will represent only the second time in more than 30 years that the national executive committee has decided to seek the resignation of an administration official — much less three officials at once.

“We do not take this lightly,” he told The Times.

Mr. Dellinger balked at the notion that politics could complicate the debate over whether to keep or remove the current leadership at the department.

“You’re dealing with veterans that fought for the freedom of this country and they should be above the political fray of this country,” he said.

Veterans Affairs hospitals around the country have found it difficult to cope with the growing number of veterans who are in need of medical attention. In the past year, facilities in South Carolina, Florida, Georgia and Washington state have been linked to delays.

Whistleblowers last month claimed that the VA health care system in Phoenix had set up a secret waiting list not revealed to patients that might have resulted in as many as 40 deaths for veterans awaiting treatment. The revelations have sparked calls on Capitol Hill for hearings and an investigation.

USA Today reported over the weekend on new problems at a VA facility in Fort Collins, Colorado, where administrators are suspected of compiling bogus appointment records in order to meet the agency’s goals for treating patients.

The American Legion’s demand for new leadership was not backed by the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States, the nation’s largest combat veterans’ organization, which nevertheless demanded that Mr. Shinseki take action in light of recent revelations.

“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,” said VFW National Commander William A. Thien in a statement.

Drew Brookie, a spokesman for the Department of Veterans Affairs, said in a statement that Mr. Shinseki and his team have made strong progress in recent years to better serve veterans. The department, he said, takes any allegations about patient care or employee misconduct very seriously.

“Secretary Shinseki has dedicated his life to his fellow Veterans and nobody is more committed to completing the work that lies ahead,” Mr. Brookie said.

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