WASHINGTON – The growing furor over veterans’ health care moved to the political campaigns Thursday as congressional candidates from both parties called for Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to be fired.
Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, who is challenging Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, was among those calling for Shinseki’s removal amid investigations of VA patients dying while awaiting treatment and falsified appointment records.
Democrat Rick Weiland, who is running for South Dakota’s open Senate seat, also called for Shinseki’s ouster, as did a Democrat running for an open House seat in New Jersey and two Republicans challenging vulnerable Democrats in northern Minnesota House districts.
House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., added to the calls for Shinseki’s resignation, saying the VA crisis was “a national embarrassment” that requires new leadership.
Shinseki, 71, said Thursday that he intends to remain on the job. “I serve at the pleasure of the president,” he told reporters at the Capitol. The former Army general and chief of staff added that “this is not the first time” he has faced controversy in his career.
Grimes, the Kentucky Senate candidate, said the government had defaulted on a “solemn obligation to our veterans. I don’t see how that breach of trust with our veterans can be repaired if the current leadership stays in place,” she said.
Grimes has tried to distance herself at times from President Barack Obama, who is largely unpopular in her state, and she demonstrated her independence by calling for a cabinet member’s removal.
McConnell said earlier this week that the predicament at the VA was “a management problem, not a money problem,” adding, “it’s obvious that the management team needs to be changed.”
The inspector general at the Veterans Affairs Department says 26 VA facilities nationwide are under investigation, including the Phoenix hospital at the center of allegations about treatment delays and secret waiting lists intended to hide delays in care.
The allegations have raised fresh concerns about the Obama administration’s management of a department that has been struggling to keep up with the influx of veterans returning home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and Vietnam veterans needing more care as they age.
McConnell campaign spokeswoman Allison Moore said the campaign was pleased Grimes had joined in calling for a change in VA management. Moore criticized Senate Democrats for blocking a House-passed bill that would have made it easier to fire or demote senior VA executives.
Senate Democrats said they are working on their own legislation to make it easier to fire or demote executives at VA.
“I think what the House has done is not unreasonable,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters Thursday, adding that he is confident the Senate will act quickly on a measure being pushed by Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
The political maneuvering came as the Senate Appropriations Committee added language to a military construction spending bill that, like the House proposal, would give the VA secretary broader authority to remove low-performing officials.
“The veterans are not getting the medical care they need,” said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee “Some heads need to roll.”
White House spokesman Jay Carney, meanwhile, said Thursday the Obama administration supports the goal of the House bill, but added, “We do have some concerns that some provisions could result in significant litigation.”
The administration is working with Congress on better language, Carney told reporters.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Thursday that reports of “horrors” at the VA were “appalling.”
His voice cracking, Boehner said veterans “are men and women who served our country, and we’ve not just let them down, we’ve let them die. This is awful stuff, and someone ought to be held accountable for it.”
Boehner has not called for Shinseki to resign, but he said, “I have to admit that I am getting a little closer” to doing so.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, meanwhile, called allegations of misconduct at the VA “completely and utterly unacceptable” and urged a broad review of services for veterans.
Pelosi, D-Calif., said she was open to an idea advanced by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to allow veterans to receive medical care at private hospitals.
“We can’t have another backlog of people waiting for permission to go to a federally qualified clinic in a region,” she said. “We have to think in a big way because this is a very big challenge.”
Obama’s deputy chief of staff, Rob Nabors, was in Phoenix Thursday to meet with hospital staff. The director of the Phoenix VA Health Care System has been placed on leave while the inspector general investigates claims that up to 40 people died while awaiting treatment in Phoenix.