LITTLE ROCK — U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., said Thursday he is not ready to call for the resignation of Veteran Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, saying he wants more information on the burgeoning scandal over secret VA wait lists.
“In terms of Shinseki’s resignation, my view on that is, not yet,” Pryor told reporters in Little Rock. “I’m not going to call for that yet. There’s an interim report right now, there’s more to follow. … I have a lot of questions about what he knew.”
U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Dardanelle, who is challenging Pryor’s re-election bid, has called for Shinseki to resign and has criticized Pryor for not doing the same.
The cry for Shinseki’s head — from Republicans and Democrats — grew louder following the release Wednesday of an interim Inspector General’s audit that confirms at least 1,700 patients at the VA’s hospital in Phoenix never were scheduled for appointments and may have been “lost or forgotten” in its electronic scheduling system. Investigators said patients waited on average 115 days to see a doctor and that long delays in providing care were “systemic” within the VA.
U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, on Thursday issued a statement calling for Shinseki to resign.
“I do not believe General Shinseki can effectively implement the wholesale reforms necessary to make the VA the effective and efficient agency our veterans deserve,” he said.
Heber Springs Mayor Jackie McPherson, who is challenging Crawford, issued a similar call.
“General Shinseki has served his country honorably, and we thank him for his service, but we cannot ignore the systemic failures of the VA’s health system,” he said.
Like Cotton, U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Little Rock, had earlier called for Shinseki to resign. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., and U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, have not.
“Simply calling for Shinseki’s resignation will not fix the systemic issues at the VA,” Womack said Thursday. “We need to get to the root of the problem and hold the responsible VA leadership accountable — up to and including the secretary, if necessary — by relieving them of their duties and replacing them with proven leaders who can ensure our veterans get the care they need and deserve.”
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, echoed Womack’s statement Thursday.
“I’m going to continue to reserve judgment on General Shinseki,” Boehner said. “The question I ask myself: 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? The answer I keep getting is no.”
Pryor said that if officials were “cooking the books,” it is possible that Shinseki did not know about the long waits. He also said he has questions about how widespread the problem is and wants to see more numbers.
Pryor said he has “immense respect” for Shinseki’s military service and for him as person but also said he is “very upset with everything I’m hearing out of the VA.”
“This is a very serous problem for the Veterans Administration,” he said. “I think over time we’re going to have to see a lot of changes there, and that may be including changing the secretary. And obviously it’s going to probably include changing a lot of people there in Phoenix.”
Pryor said he has not heard of problems in Arkansas similar to those in Phoenix but said he wants to make sure.
The senator noted that he is a co-sponsor of the VA Management Accountability Act, which would give the VA secretary more power to remove senior executives at the agency over the scandal.
Cotton has accused Pryor of belatedly supporting the measure, which passed in the House last week.
“Sen. Pryor sat idly by while Senate Democrats blocked a vote (last week) on this bipartisan legislation,” Cotton campaign manager Justin Brasuell said in a statement Thursday. “It’s also past time for Sen. Pryor to join Tom Cotton and members of Congress from both parties in calling on Secretary Shinseki to resign.”
Pryor said he voted for the measure at his first opportunity, when it was presented last week as an unexpected amendment to an appropriations bill.
“They’re just being political,” he said. “And I hope people do not politicize this. Our veterans are too important to politicize this.”
Pryor spoke to reporters after holding a round-table discussion with Arkansas college students on student loans and college affordability. He took the opportunity to repeat criticisms he has made of Cotton for having voted against legislation to lower interest rates on student loans.
— Stephens Washington Bureau reporter Peter Urban contributed to this report.