Hagan, Burr call for action on alleged misconduct at VA

rschoof@mcclatchydc.comMay 23, 2014 

— North Carolina’s senators are calling for an investigation into the alleged misconduct at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan stopped short of saying VA Secretary Eric Shinseki should resign while Republican Sen. Richard Burr called for changes in leadership without mentioning Shinseki by name.

In an open letter to veterans on Friday, Burr, the highest-ranking Republican on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, took some leaders of veterans service organizations to task for not calling for leadership changes at the VA when they testified before the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs on May 15.

And in a separate a statement, Burr asked: “How many things have to go wrong before someone is fired? I have no hope we can accomplish any changes with the current regime.”

He and other members of the committee called for oversight hearings.

On Thursday, Hagan said an investigation is needed to determine who should be held accountable.

“Reports of improper scheduling practices that have resulted in life-threatening delays for our veterans are completely unacceptable, and there must be a full investigation to immediately determine the extent of the problem and hold accountable those responsible, no matter who it is,” she said in a statement.

On Friday, Michelle Nunn, the Democrats’ U.S. Senate nominee in Georgia, became the latest among moderate Democrats to call for Shinseki to step down. Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, who is trying to unseat veteran Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the Senate minority leader, urged Shinseki to resign on Thursday. Like Hagan, Nunn and Grimes are in tight Senate races.

N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis, the Republican running against Hagan in the U.S. Senate race, accused Hagan of refusing to hold the Obama administration accountable.

“It’s been incredibly disappointing that Sen. Kay Hagan has remained silent throughout this scandal at the same time Democrats and Republicans are joining together to demand answers and immediate action,” he said earlier this week. “Sen. Hagan is refusing to hold the Obama administration accountable, even when its failures are obvious to all.”

The VA inspector general’s office is investigating reports of delays for care in Phoenix and 26 other VA facilities. Federal auditors were at the Durham VA Medical Center last week as part of the nationwide investigation, and two workers there were put on administrative leave while the agency investigates claims of improper scheduling.

“I have personally been in direct communication with the VA in recent days regarding the investigations at the Durham VA clinic and elsewhere and will continue working to ensure full transparency and accountability in the process,” Hagan said.

Bush officials’ rebuke

Shinseki, a retired Army general, has been secretary of the VA since the beginning of the Obama administration in January 2009.

He was chief of staff, the Army’s most senior officer, from 1999 to 2003. He led the Army through the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the war in Afghanistan and the beginning of the Iraq war. Before the invasion of Iraq, he publicly warned Congress that the nation was entering the war without enough troops to secure the country. Officials in the administration of President George W. Bush rebuked him. Shinseki retired in 2003.

His Army career began 38 years earlier when he graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1965. He was soon sent to Vietnam, where he suffered shrapnel wounds in 1966. In a second tour in Vietnam in 1970, he lost his right foot when he stepped on a land mine. His military awards include three Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts.

Shinseki also earned a master’s degree in English literature from Duke University and is a graduate of the National War College.

“I take allegations about patient safety or employee misconduct very seriously,” Shinseki said in an open letter to veterans posted on the VA website on Thursday. He said he ordered an audit by more than 200 senior VA staffers of all VA health facilities. “If any allegations under review are substantiated, we will act.”

Calls for oversight hearings

In his own open letter to veterans, Burr said most of the veterans service organizations that testified before Congress on May 15 were “more interested in defending the status quo within the VA, protecting their relationships within the agency, and security their access to the secretary and his inner circle.”

Burr and the other minority members of the Veterans’ Affairs committee said in a statement that they’d requested oversight hearings since the beginning of 2013, but none have taken place. They said topics the committee should investigate include the Veterans Health Administration, the quality of VA health care, the agency’s treatment of whistleblowers and the integrity of its data.

Committee Chairman Sen. Bernard Sanders, an independent from Vermont, has said he’s waiting for the results of the inspector general’s report before holding a hearing.

President Barack Obama on Wednesday said that those responsible for misconduct would be punished. He said he trusted Shinseki.

McClatchy reporters David Lightman and Nancy Yousseff in Washington contributed.

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