WASHINGTON — Arkansas lawmakers on Friday urged the Obama administration to act swiftly to resolve “systemic” problems within the VA, saying Department of Veteran Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki’s resignation alone is not a fix.
“Secretary Shinseki’s resignation is an overdue first step toward the reforms needed to get our veterans the care they deserve,” said Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Dardanelle, who had called last week for him to step down.
“It’s clear there’s a lack of integrity within the VA system and we need to fix it immediately,” said Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., who had stood by Shinseki as late as Thursday.
Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Little Rock, who was among the first lawmakers calling for Shinseki to resign, welcomed his departure but added that more is needed.
“Make no mistake, a new leader alone won’t cure what ails the VA; the only cure is bold, innovative reform that will undoubtedly receive massive resistance from entrenched defenders of the status quo,” he said. “But, the best interests of veterans must prevail.”
Griffin called for Shinseki to resign in a May 12 letter sent to the president.
President Barack Obama accepted Shinseki’s offer to resign during a closed meeting Friday at the White House. Obama spoke to reporters afterward and announced Shinseki’s departure.
“He has worked hard to investigate and identify the problems with access to care, but as he told me this morning, the VA needs new leadership to address them. He does not want to be a distraction, because his priority is to fix the problem and make sure our vets are getting the care that they need,” Obama said.
Earlier in the morning, Shinseki offered a public apology to veterans and their families for the VA failures. He also outlined a series of steps that are being taken to address the systemic problems found by VA’s inspector general.
Senior leaders at the Phoenix VA, where misconduct was first uncovered, are being fired. Senior executives across the VA will not receive performance bonuses this year. And, VA is contacting all the veterans in Phoenix waiting for appointments to get them care either within VA or elsewhere.
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.
Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., issued a statement Friday morning calling for Shinseki to resign in light of the inspector general’s findings. Reps. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, issued a similar statement on Thursday.
“The public, a large portion of the veterans’ community, and much of Congress have lost faith in Secretary Shinseki’s ability to make the necessary changes to fix the shortcomings that have cost our veterans timely medical care they need and earned. The administration must take quick action to regain that confidence, and up to now, a sense of urgency in the White House has been lacking to say the least,” Boozman said.
Boozman added that a new secretary would not absolve Obama of his responsibility to ensure veterans receive prompt care.
“If there is a sense of complacency that has set in within VA, it is the president’s responsibility to reverse that course, which will require much more effort on his part than merely nominating a new secretary,” Boozman said.
Obama named VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson to temporarily take the reins at VA until a new secretary is confirmed. He also plans to keep White House Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors at VA to assist in the transition.
“We’re going to do right by our veterans across the board, as long as it takes. We’re not going to stop working to make sure that they get the care, the benefit and the opportunities that they’ve earned and they deserve. I said we wouldn’t tolerate misconduct, and we will not. I said that we have to do better, and we will,” Obama said.
Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, said he was encouraged that the Obama administration was taking responsibility for the problems plaguing the VA. He had not called for Shinseki to resign.
“It’s been determined that the VA’s problems are systemic, and while I’m encouraged that the administration is beginning to take responsibility for them, Secretary Shinseki’s resignation alone isn’t going to right the ship,” Womack said. “I hope acting Secretary Gibson will promptly get to the bottom of this, hold all involved accountable, and do everything in his power to repair the lack of trust our nation and veterans have in their health system.”
With mid-term elections six months away, the VA scandal has inevitably become a campaign issue in the hotly contested Arkansas Senate race.
Cotton issued his statement on Shinseki’s resignation through his campaign office and aimed his comment mostly at Pryor.
“I’m disappointed that, as usual, Senator Pryor stuck with President Obama until the very end, but even the President realized Secretary Shinseki needed to resign. Our veterans and all Arkansans need a senator who will lead, not one who will defer to Barack Obama,” Cotton said.
Pryor has also come under similar fire from the National Republican Party and the National Republican Senatorial Committee who for a week have asked Pryor to say if Shinseki should go.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee countered with an attack on Cotton — noting that he had opposed additional funds to hire claims processors at the VA and supported a conservative budget alternative that would have cut benefits for retired and disabled veterans.
Pryor had remained quiet on whether Shinseki should resign until Thursday when he told reporters that he was not ready to call for Shinseki’s resignation. Pryor also scheduled meetings Thursday and Friday with the director of the Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System in Little Rock and the head of the VA facility in Fayetteville to see if they too were failing veterans.
Both centers have been audited but neither expects the inspector general will be investigating further, according to Pryor.