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Washington – During a tense late-night hearing Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Tim Walz took the final step from ally of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to part of the fast-growing group within Congress that wants Shinseki out.
Hours earlier, the Minnesota Democrat had seen an interim report from the Office of the Inspector General showing that VA officials falsified data to cover up the fact that veterans seeking medical care are being forced to wait for months.
“You can’t formulate a plan to fix this if we don’t know everything that happened,” Walz said during the hearing, as he and other members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee hammered VA administrators over the agency’s lack of accountability and transparency.
Before the night was out, Walz had issued a statement calling Shinseki “one of the most honorable and loyal men I have ever met,’’ but concluding that “ultimately the buck stops with the Secretary.”
Walz’s no-confidence vote toward Shinseki has become nearly unanimous within Minnesota’s congressional delegation. Both of the state’s senators have also called on the Cabinet member to step down, as have six of its eight House members.
“This is a systemic problem, that’s what we saw from this report, and Secretary Shinseki seems to have been not on top of this in the manner that he should be,” Sen. Al Franken said Thursday during a trip to Fort Snelling for a groundbreaking on a new veterans’ housing initiative.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar said Thursday that she, too, was troubled by the VA’s inability to accurately identify its own problems.
Klobuchar said in a statement that “based on my review of this critical report today, I believe that the Department needs new leadership in order to gain back the trust of our veterans and solve these serious problems.”
Reps. Collin Peterson and Erik Paulsen also called for Shinseki’s resignation this week, joining Reps. Michele Bachmann and John Kline and Democratic Rep. Rick Nolan, who had demanded that Shinseki step down before the release of the report.
In a Fox News interview, Bachmann said fixing the problems within the VA must go beyond Shinseki’s resignation, to ensure that the government is not just “rearranging deck chairs.”
The Inspector General’s report, released Wednesday, confirmed for the first time that officials at a Phoenix VA facility had falsified data to cover up the fact that veterans were sometimes waiting months instead of days to get medical appointments. The report said that such manipulations of data to hide waiting times were “systemic throughout” the medical centers that serve the nation’s veterans, and 42 medical facilities are now under review.
While the calls for Shinseki to go are building, some rank-and-file veterans continue to stand by the agency and its leader.
Moments after he delivered an emotional speech at the Fort Snelling ceremony, retired Marine Corps veteran Jerry Readmond said the VA still has his full support.
“Until everything’s on the table and the inspector general, president and everyone gets all the facts, then we can make a positive” decision, said Readmond, 67 of Bloomington. “But for right now I’m totally, unequivocally in support of the president, I’m in support of the secretary of Veterans Affairs and with what’s happening here today, how can we not be?”
U.S. Reps. Keith Ellison and Betty McCollum are among those in Congress who, while not publicly supporting Shinseki, are not yet calling on him to step down.
McCollum wants to expand the investigation to include all VA facilities nationwide and is asking that the Department of Justice investigate possible criminal misconduct by VA officials. Calling for Shinseki’s dismissal “may make politicians feel good,” she said, “but it does nothing to address the real needs.”
Ellison called the interim report “heartbreaking.” Whether Shinseki is up to the task of turning around “this abysmal situation will become clearer for me when we know what he knew, when he knew it and his plan to fix the problems,” Ellison said.
With millions of new veterans joining the system, VA medical centers have become overwhelmed, with patients sometimes waiting a year to see a primary-care physician and then months-long delays for specialist appointments.
Senators plan to address VA accountability when they return to Washington next week. Franken and Klobuchar have been awaiting data they requested on wait times at Minnesota’s Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals and outpatient clinics.
“Until the final report comes out I don’t want to make a final conclusion about Minnesota, but ... I think we’re going to do much better relative to some of the disturbing things we’ve heard,” Franken said.
The problems are almost certain to be an issue as Senate and House races heat up.
“We do not see it as a Republican or Democrat thing,” said Pete Hegseth, CEO of Concerned Veterans for America and the newly appointed treasurer of the Republican Party of Minnesota. “It should not be a partisan issue. But it will be a political issue.”
Corey Mitchell is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau. Twitter: @C_C_Mitchell