U.S. Sen. Al Franken and U.S. Reps. Tim Walz and Collin Peterson are among a growing number of Democratic lawmakers calling for Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign after an inspector general’s report that found “systemic” problems at VA medical facilities.
The interim investigative report released Wednesday found at least 1,700 veterans waiting for health care at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs medical facility were not included on the facility’s wait list, and patients there waited an average of 115 days for their first appointments.
The report also documents schemes used at VA facilities intended to conceal wait times and concluded that the problems are national in scope.
Less than a week ago, Walz said he would reserve judgment until the report was complete and that Shinseki, the longest-serving VA secretary in history, deserved the “benefit of the doubt.”
The troubling findings apparently removed all doubt.
“Secretary Shinseki is one of the most honorable and loyal men I have ever met,” Walz, a member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said in a statement. “It’s a shame that he and other veterans were let down by certain people working under him at the VA, but ultimately the buck stops with the Secretary. That is why today, I believe it would be best if Secretary Shinseki stepped down.”
With Franken, Walz and Peterson calling for Shinseki’s removal, more than half of the state’s 10-member congressional delegation is publicly calling for Shinseki’s ouster.
Senate Democrats plan to address accountability at the VA next week when they return to Washington, but Franken and other Senate Democrats are already calling for new leadership in the wake of the inspector general’s findings.
“The Inspector General’s report is so troubling that I have come to the conclusion that the Department of Veterans Affairs needs new leadership. I believe it would be in the best interest of veterans for Secretary Shinseki to step down,” Franken said in a statement.
“The VA needs to be delivering quality care to our veterans on a timely basis. Clearly there is a systemic problem that this leadership has not been addressing.”
In a statement released today, Shinseki said the findings were “reprehensible to me, to this Department and to Veterans.”
White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough briefed President Obama on the report, but he has yet to take action.
“There needs to be accountability and new leadership and the best step forward is for the Secretary to offer his resignation so we can start fixing the problems where they exist,” Peterson said in a statement. “We have to do better by our veterans.”
Democratic U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan called for Shinseki’s resignation last week. Among the Republicans in the Minnesota delegation U.S. Reps. Michele Bachmann and John Kline also want him out.
By Allison Sherry
With help from Rachel Stassen-Berger
WASHINGTON -- Democratic Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar joined a chorus Friday in criticizing the Veterans Administration and pressed the regional office on wait times for medical appointments in Minnesota's clinics and hospitals.
"The incidents that have been reported at VA facilities in Arizona and elsewhere are outrageous and entirely unacceptable," the two wrote in a letter to Janet Murphy, network director for the VA Midwest Health Care Network in Minnesota.
Franken and Klobuchar specifically asked Murphy for the average number of days veterans must wait to receive appointments at every VA facility in Minnesota.
One of Franken's GOP opponents Mike McFadden pinged the senator earlier Friday for keeping quiet on the VA scandal, in which more than two dozen hospitals and clinics face allegations of long wait times and false record-keeping. In Phoenix, there are allegations the missteps caused multiple deaths.
"Criticizing mergers and talking about Internet fast lanes may generate headlines for Sen. Franken, but it does nothing to guarantee that our veterans have access to quality healthcare when they need it," said McFadden, in an e-mailed statement. He also called for Shinseki's resignation. "Minnesota doesn't need any more out-of-touch politicians like Al Franken."
Franken's office said that two weeks ago, in the wake of the news about several alleged incidents at VA medical centers in Arizona and elsewhere, the senator directed his office to contact the Department of Veterans Affairs to find more information about the wait times for medical care.
Franken and Klobuchar's letter went out the same day Democratic Rep. Rick Nolan called for VA Secretary Eric Shinseki's resignation.
Democratic Reps. Collin Peterson and Tim Walz didn't go that far Friday, instead calling for a "national review" of all VA medical facilities. Walz is a veteran and member of the Veteran's Affairs committee.
GOP Rep. Erik Paulsen has not called for resignation. Rep. John Kline scribed an op-ed on VA issues earlier this week in a local paper, which stopped short of calling for a resignation. Rep. Michele Bachmann, on Fox News, called for his resignation.
All week, Minnesota Republican Congressional candidates blasted Democrats on the scandal. On Thursday, Republican 7th Congressional District candidate Torrey Westrom and 8th Congressional District Stewart Mills also called for Shinseki’s resignation. First District Republican Jim Hagedorn’s campaign sent out a release titled, “Obama-Walz have let down veterans."
Hank Sadler, chair of Veterans for Walz, sharply criticized the "partisan" attacks.
"It's despicable that Republicans running for Congress would use veterans' lives in a blatant attempt to score cheap political points. They should be ashamed," he said, in an email.
First District Republican Aaron Miller had also blasted Walz on May 21, with a release titled, "Our veterans deserve better, President Obama and Congressman Walz are failing them."
On May 27, Kline said: "General Shinseki is a decorated Vietnam veteran and I appreciate his service to our country, but the entire leadership of the VA must be held accountable which is why I’m calling on him to resign – and if he doesn’t, the President should relieve him of his duties."
The U.S. House Veterans Affairs Committee, including Democratic Rep. Tim Walz, voted today to subpoena VA Secretary Eric Shinseki over allegations of widespread misconduct at a Phoenix medical center that may have led to the deaths of up to 40 veterans.
The Shinseki subpoena will cover e-mails that allegedly discussed the destruction of a 'secret waiting list' of veterans who died while waiting for care at the hospital.
“The allegations coming out of the Phoenix VA are extremely troubling and, while the independent Inspector General is conducting their own investigation, it’s important for Congress to continue to provide oversight as well,” Walz said in a statement.
Committee chairman, Republican Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida, said the panel tried to contact VA brass numerous times, requesting copies of correspondence related to wait times at the Phoenix hospital.
“The subpoena was necessary because the previous response from VA was not sufficient for the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee to conduct proper oversight,” said Walz, a veteran of the Army National Guard.
On Monday, Concerned Veterans for America, a group led by former Minnesota U.S. Senate candidate Pete Hegseth, called for Shinseki's resignation.
Shinseki has said that he will not resign over the allegations.
Television and radio ads already airing to influence Minnesota voters in races for U.S. House, U.S. Senate and the governor's race and are unlikely to let up until Election Day.
Although the ads are coming late -- during the competitive U.S. Senate race in 2008 the air war was already months old by this point -- their appearance presages a barrage through November.
With potentially heated races for governor and U.S. Senate as Republicans work to wrest both offices from Democrats who won their first races by narrow margins, candidates and their allies will battle across the state's airwaves. National interests see the 8th Congressional District, which has flopped between Democratic and Republican control in recent years, as ripe for a turn over and therefore overdue for more ads.
In the governor's race, Republican Marty Seifert plans to launch his first ad this week, his campaign said on Wednesday. It is the first TV spot in the race that will determine whether DFL Gov. Mark Dayton keeps his job. Andy Post, Seifert's campaign manager, said the ad will run during the Minnesota Wild's Friday night game.
Seifert is in a pitched battle to woo Republicans at the party's endorsing convention this month and the GOP will likely also have a crowded primary in August. Businessman Scott Honour, another contender for Republican votes, has also been running radio ads.
Dayton, who has amassed larger campaign coffers than any of the Republicans running against him, has not yet started television ads. He is focused on the legislative session and unlike in his first election, does not face a primary. His campaign manager Katharine Tinucci said he has the resources to run ads when the time comes but, "that time is not now."
Minnesota viewers may see and hear more ads in the other statewide contest -- the race for the U.S. Senate.
In that race, the most significant candidate media spending has come from Democratic U.S. Sen. Al Franken. This week started a six figure television ad campaign. He has raised more than all but a few sitting senators so likely has the resources to keep it up.
Republican Senate candidate Mike McFadden started running cable ads a few weeks ago and Republican rival Julianne Ortman began radio ads late last month.
That's only a taste. When Franken first ran, he and then-Sen. Norm Coleman, spent millions on dozens of television ads blasting Minnesotans right until their recount began.
Outside groups are also gearing up. A conservative group launched an anti-Franken ad way back in March.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce included Republican U.S. House candidate Stewart Mills in its $3 million television ad campaign to jump-start Republican campaigns "and unite the business community around their efforts,” Scott Reed, the chamber’s senior political strategist, told the New York Times.
Minnesota’s Democrats and Republicans have selected their candidates to do congressional battle this year.
Over the last several months, activists have gathered in small meetings across the state to pick their favorites. Now their slates are complete.
In most districts, those picks are expected to have clear sailing to the general election. In at least one, the party-endorsed candidate will still face a primary.
In the map below, find out about this year's congressional combatants.
Graphic: Jamie Hutt, Star Tribune
Star Tribune staff reporter Allison Sherry contributed to this post.