Obama May Have to Fire the Head of Veterans’ Affairs
Policy + Politics

Obama May Have to Fire the Head of Veterans’ Affairs

Reuters/Jonathan Earnst

Eric Shinseki may lose his job after all.

President Obama’s Secretary of Veterans Affairs hold on his job seemed a bit more tenuous on Sunday as anger over mismanagement and possible fraud at VA hospitals grew. In an interview aired Sunday morning, a top White House adviser avoided giving a direct answer when asked if Shinseki still had the support of the president. 

Shinseki, a former four-star Army general, is under fire because of a growing scandal within the hospital system run by the VA on behalf of the nation’s millions of military veterans. After a whistleblower revealed that a VA hospital in Phoenix was producing fake data on wait times, and that excessive delays may have contributed to patient deaths, evidence of similar practices at ten or more additional VA facilities were brought to light. 

Related: Neglect and Delay May Not Have Caused VA Deaths 

In some cases, hospital administrators appear to have created “secret” lists of veterans awaiting care – lists that showed many waited six months to a year for treatment of various conditions – while providing the public with documents suggesting that wait times were as little as two weeks. 

Shinseki gave somewhat bloodless answers to angry lawmakers during a hearing of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee on Thursday, declaring that he was “mad as hell” in a tone of voice that suggested he was anything but.

In an interview recorded Saturday but first aired Sunday morning on CBS’s Face the Nation, correspondent Major Garrett asked White House chief of staff Denis McDonough if the president was satisfied with Shinseki’s performance. 

“We don’t score testimony on Capitol Hill or otherwise,” McDonough said. “What we score is results as it relates to the services and benefits that our vets have earned.” 

Related: VA Disgrace – This Photo Tells the Story 

McDonough tried to move the subject away from Shinseki, pointing out the various improvements the administration has made to services for veterans, and the increase in resources it has dedicated to their care. 

With regard to the problems in Phoenix and elsewhere, McDonough said, “The president is madder than hell, and I’ve got the scars to prove it.” He said the president demanded that his staff “get to the bottom” of the problems and “make sure that they don’t happen again.” 

Garrett then asked if Shinseki was the right man to turn around the VA system, considering that the problems had been uncovered on his watch. 

“General Shinseki continues to work this every single day you saw him up there he testified for three hours yesterday, sat and listened to the veterans service organizations after he finished, went out after that and talked to the press again, and he will continue to work these issues until they are fixed.” 

“With the full confidence of the president?” Garrett asked. 

Related: Vets Blow the Whistle on Negligent VA Management

"The president will continue to demand that he and all of us who work for him continue to fix these things until they are functioning the way that our veterans, believe they should … so that they get the … services and the benefits that they have earned," McDonough said, conspicuously avoiding the question. 

Veterans groups and lawmakers expressed varied opinions on whether Shinseki should be forced out. Dan Dellinger, national commander of the American Legion, said that if a similar situation had occurred while Shinseki was in uniform, he would have been relieved of command. 

The VA, he said, needs a “cultural change,” which is why his organization has called for Shinseki’s resignation. 

On Meet the Press, Congressman Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), himself a veteran, said, “This has gone from an incompetence and a backlog to something criminal. Something where people are hiding veterans’ names.” 

He added, “I think it’s time for Shinseki to resign. He’s a great guy, a great American, but we need to get somebody there who knows how to fix the problem.” 

Related: Veterans Say Enough Is Enough, VA Chief Must Resign 

However, on Fox News Sunday, Ryan Gallucci, head of national veterans’ service for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, was asked if Shinseki was the right man for the job, he said, “We hope he is for now, but we demand swift accountability. The families affected by these allegations need justice and they need it quickly.” 

Dr. Sam Foote, the former VA employee who blew the whistle on the Phoenix VA hospital, also said that he hoped Shinseki would be kept on. Changing secretaries now, he said, would only shift the focus from fixing the problem to finding a new secretary, who would then get a “six-to-nine month grace period, because he’s the new guy.”

Foote said he hoped the administration will “keep the secretary on board.” However, he said, “I think the president needs to keep him on a pretty short leash.” 

“Certainly at one point in his career, he knew how to take names, knew how to kick butt when he needed to and hold people accountable,” Foote said. “That’s the guy we need in there,” he added, “not the not the guy who has kind of sit back” and let underlings run everything.

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