- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The top Republican of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee said Tuesday that the Obama administration’s Department of Veterans Affairs is so dysfunctional that it’s time to fire Secretary Eric K. Shinseki.

“How many things can go wrong before you have to look at leadership?” Sen. Richard Burr, North Carolina Republican, told The Washington Times. “I think Secretary Shinseki has been given a tremendous amount of latitude, not because of his performance at the VA, but because of his military record, and nobody disputes that. But at some point, you have to ask, ‘Shouldn’t somebody be fired?’”

Mr. Burr joined other top Republicans and the American Legion, which this week said President Obama can no longer ignore a growing list of accusations of mismanagement at the VA.

The most explosive recent charge accused the Phoenix VA Health Care System of keeping two patient lists — one for public release that would make it seem that the hospital was meeting legal rules on wait times for appointments, and a secret one that reflected actual treatment. At least 40 veterans allegedly died while on the secret list, waiting for care.

Sens. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and John Cornyn of Texas, the two top Republicans in the Senate, joined Mr. Burr in saying it was time to change leadership at VA headquarters in Washington, saying problems extend well beyond Phoenix and include deteriorating care and backlogs at facilities throughout the country.

“I wish the White House, instead of traveling around the country, talking about the urgency of climate change, would talk with equal urgency about this failure of leadership and incompetence at the VA,” Mr. Cornyn told reporters on Capitol Hill.

Several other Republicans, including Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas and Rep. Mike Coffman of Colorado, have called for the resignation of Mr. Shinseki, a retired Army general who has headed the Department of Veterans Affairs since 2009.

Mr. Moran, who also sits on the veterans panel, said Mr. Shinseki has achieved little in his nearly five years at the helm of Veterans Affairs and said “there’s a difference in wanting change” and making it happen.

But President Obama still has full faith in Mr. Shinseki to do his job, White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters.

“We must ensure that our nation’s veterans get the benefits and services they deserve and they have earned. The president remains confident in Secretary Shinseki’s ability to lead the department,” Mr. Carney said.

Sen. Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent and chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, also said that the vast majority of VA workers are doing a great job and that firing Mr. Shinseki won’t fix the problems in Phoenix.

“Secretary Shinseki has done the right thing by calling for an immediate investigation of those allegations,” he wrote in a statement. “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.”

While the secret wait list in Phoenix may be what prompted veterans’ organizations to call for Mr. Shinseki to resign, Mr. Burr said it’s just the final straw after years of issues plaguing the veteran community.

“I sort of interpret their call for the secretary’s resignation not as an isolated incident in Phoenix,” he said. “I think this is a combination of disability claims, appeals backlog. This is not the first time we’ve had a reason to pull the IG in to look at specific problems in the delivery of care.”

And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the accusations from Phoenix are still being investigated and it would be wrong to act before the probe is finished.

Dr. Robert Petzel, undersecretary for health at the VA, said at a hearing last week that his team of investigators hasn’t found any evidence of a secret waiting list in Phoenix yet — comments that surprised Mr. Burr, he said, since the inspector general hadn’t even released its preliminary report.

In addition, American Legion Commander Daniel Dellinger rejected that claim Monday, saying that by the Legion’s tally, there have been at least 23 preventable deaths to date.

Also Tuesday, the Associated Press reported that employees at a veterans medical clinic in Colorado were instructed to falsify records to make it appear that patients were getting appointments close to the day requested.

Workers at the Fort Collins clinic were told to make their records show that veterans got appointments within 14 days of the day requested, whether or not it was true, according to a December report by investigators from the Veterans Affairs Department’s medical branch.

VA facilities are focused on shortening the backlog and getting veterans appointments within the required time frame, but that focus on improving numbers shouldn’t overshadow the department’s commitment to helping patients, Mr. Burr said.

“There’s more focus on staying within their guidelines than there is on ‘Are we delivering their care?’; ‘Are we getting the kids what they need?’ And I would say that’s a real problem,” he said.

Ben Wolfgang and Maggie Ybarra contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire-service reports.

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