The longest-serving Veterans Affairs secretary has overstayed his welcome, at least in the eyes of the nation’s largest veterans’ advocacy group.
The American Legion has called for the immediate resignation of Eric Shinseki, saying the VA secretary has exhibited poor oversight and leadership at the agency that serves more than 20 million U.S. vets. The group, which has stood by Shinseki in recent years and during previous scandals, said recent allegations that delayed care at a VA facility in Phoenix led to at least 40 deaths prompted it to drop its support for the secretary.
Somewhat surprisingly, the loudest calls to remove Shinseki, head of the VA since President Barack Obama took office in January 2009, didn’t come from Republicans in Congress, even though the VA has acknowledged that at least 23 deaths in recent years stemmed from delays in medical care. Instead, the demands for his ouster came from Indianapolis, headquarters for the American Legion and its more than 2.3 million members.
“The existing leadership has exhibited a pattern of bureaucratic incompetence and failed leadership that has been amplified in recent weeks,” American Legion National Commander Daniel Dellinger said at a news conference yesterday in Indianapolis. “There needs to be a change, and that change needs to occur at the top.”
He also said Under Secretary of Health Robert Petzel and Under Secretary of Benefits Allison Hickey should resign. Medical care at VA facilities has been called into question following exposures to hepatitis and allegations that in both Arizona and Colorado, VA personnel kept secret lists to mask the long waiting periods for patients who died without receiving necessary treatments.
Republicans in Congress, many of whom have been critical of the VA, appeared willing to let the investigation into such allegations play out first. “If in fact what we suspect is true, I think the secretary will have no other option but to step down,” Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL), chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, told Fox News this week.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, had already called for a hearing to discuss the eventual findings of the VA’s inspector general.
Shinseki, a retired U.S. Army general, has weathered previous scandals at the VA under his tenure, such as a backlog of hundreds of thousands of unprocessed disability claims and bonuses for executives who exhibited lax oversight of subordinates misusing taxpayer funds.
The White House issued a statement saying Obama continues to support Shinseki.
The demands from the American Legion represent an escalation in criticisms of the VA and could very well lead to more calls for leadership changes. The Republican-controlled House last week passed a bill that would ban bonuses for senior executives at the VA, and several lawmakers have called for removing the head of the VA facility in Phoenix, according to CNN.
The American Legion’s new stance would give lawmakers from both parties political cover for supporting Shinseki’s removal or at least calling for some of his top aides to resign.
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