A preliminary Government Accountability Office report released last night revealed that Eric Shinseki, the Veterans Affairs Secretary, has been presiding over a system in which dozens of hospitals meant to serve veterans produced false data that hid the fact that many patients were forced to wait many months to receive needed medical care.
Calls for the firing or resignation of Shinseki, a retired U.S. Army general, are piling up, with both Democrats and Republicans saying it’s time for him to step down. But Shinseki received some unexpected support from House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) on Thursday morning.
Asked if it was time for Shinseki to step down, Washington’s top Republican said, “I’m going to continue to reserve judgment on General Shinseki. The question I ask myself is, Is him resigning going to get us to the bottom of the problem? Is it going to help us find out what is really going on? And the answer I keep getting is no.”
Boehner’s decision to avoid an expression of calculated outrage directed at Shinseki was pretty plainly political in nature, however. The firing or resignation of the VA head would, according to Boehner’s view of the world, imply that the blame lies in the wrong place.
“The real issue here is that the president is the one who should be held accountable,” Boehner said.
Just a few moments before that, Republican Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) had attacked the administration for its failure to act on a recommendations delivered by the GAO in early 2013 that would have addressed some of the wait-time problems at the VA. McCarthy even produced a letter he and House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-FL) had sent the administration in January 2013 recommending the GAO’s recommendations be put in place.
“They’ve known about this; they’ve ignored it,” McCarthy said. “How we treat our veterans is a direct correlation to what we think of Americans. They defend our freedom and this is the way they get treated?”
Both McCarthy and Boehner criticized recent statements by President Obama suggesting he had only recently learned of the extent of the VA’s problems.
“As Kevin pointed out, they sent a letter going back to early 2013, talking about the GAO report and asking for its recommendations to be implemented,” Boehner said. “For the president to say he didn’t know anything about it is rather shocking. The president is going to have to step up here and show some real leadership.”
As long as Shinseki stays on the job, it will be easier for Republicans to try to direct the public anger at Obama. In fact, it’s a bit of a two-fer. They can slam the president for not firing anybody – while continuing to claim that the White House deserves most of the blame for the problem.
And while circumstances can change very quickly, Shinseki – at least as of early this morning – wasn’t behaving like a man on his way out the door. He published a brief op-ed in USA Today on Thursday, calling the behavior uncovered by GAO “reprehensible” and outlining steps he has taken to improve access to care.
He wrote, “After 38 years in the Army, I am honored and privileged to serve veterans as the secretary of Veterans Affairs, and I remain committed to providing the high-quality care and benefits that veterans have earned and deserve. And we will.”
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