Kentucky Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes is calling for the resignation of Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki.
Outrage has grown all month over allegations that VA employees “cooked the books” to cover up excessive wait times for appointments and that some veterans died while waiting for care. On Thursday, Grimes said, “We owe a solemn obligation to our veterans, and our government defaulted on that contract. I don’t see how that breach of trust with our veterans can be repaired if the current leadership stays in place.”
A poll by CBS News found that one third of Americans blame Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki for the problems that have come to light, and 36% of veterans put blame on Shinseki and the system. While 28% blame local VA hospitals, nearly a quarter of people don’t have any opinion on the subject.
While President Obama and prominent Democrats are standing by Shinseki for now, some party members from more conservative states are jumping ship. On Wednesday, two Georgia House members, Reps. John Barrow and David Scott, called on Shinseki to step down.
“While I don’t think a change in leadership will immediately solve the serious problems that plague the VA, I do think it’s time to give someone else an opportunity to lead the agency and begin the rebuilding process to ensure these issues never happen again,” they said in a statement.
Also on Thursday, Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., met with Secretary Shinseki. “We made a promise to stand by the men and women who volunteered to risk their lives in service to our nation. With almost half of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans filing for disability benefits when they leave the military, the VA system is being overwhelmed. The question before us now is whether we can rise to this challenge,” the senator said after the meeting.
Durbin, who said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that getting rid of Shinseki would not solve the VA’s problems, has been pushing for reforms that would streamline the process by which service member records are transferred to the VA.
The current scandal has not come as a surprise to veterans and service member groups. ”Military families see the VA as this huge dysfunctional bureaucracy, and the VA is living up to its reputation there,” Joyce Raezer, executive director of the National Military Families Association told msnbc.
“These issues are not new. Problems surrounding unacceptable wait times, delays and cooked books have been emerging for years,” Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said in a statement Wednesday. “IAVA has been sounding the alarm for over a decade. After numerous GAO reports and dozens of public hearings, if you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”
With a new generation of service members coming into the system, the scandal creates even more uncertainty for them and their families. “The promise is that the VA is going to be there,” Raezer told msnbc. “The VA is going to be there but will they be able to care for them, will the bureaucracy be able to meet their needs? The perception of families who don’t know much about the VA is that we may be on our own.”
There have been many Republicans calling for an end to Shinseki’s time at the head of Veterans Affairs, though House Speaker John Boehner said Thursday that while he is “closer” than he was before, he is not yet ready to make that demand. Republicans in both houses have been pushing a bill that would give the Secretary of Veterans Affairs the power to fire senior VA employees.
As pressure mounts to take swift action to solve problems that have plagued the VA for years, the Senate took up legislation that would provide extra funds to the VA Inspector General for an investigation into long wait times at VA hospitals. The Appropriation committee approved a bill that would give an extra $5 million for its investigation, and would ban bonuses for VA employees until the investigation is over and changes have been made. It also added the House-passed VA Accountability Act as an amendment.
It is not yet clear when the legislation will come to the Senate floor.