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Veterans Affairs chief Eric Shinseki faces calls to resign

The heat is on for the Veterans Affairs chief.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki on Feb. 5, 2013 in Washington, DC.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki on Feb. 5, 2013 in Washington, DC.

Top congressional Republicans are clamoring to join major veterans groups in calling for Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign amid claims that veterans died while waiting for medical treatment at VA hospitals.

Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn of Texas took to the floor Tuesday to condemn Shinseki and call for his ouster. Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran, a member of the Veterans Affairs Committee, echoed his Republican colleague's demands in a statement saying “there’s a difference in wanting change and leading it to happen.” California Rep. Duncan Hunter tweeted, “I’ll say it again—Sec. Shinseki needs to go.” 

The Republican slams come just one day after the nation's largest veterans group, the American Legion, called out the VA's “bureaucratic incompetence and failed leadership” following allegations that as many as 40 veterans died while waiting for primary care at the Phoenix VA Health Care System. So-called whistleblowers and lawmakers on the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs charge that officials at the hospital staged a massive cover-up by keeping a secret waiting list for primary-care appointments, separate from the official books sent up the VA chain of command, that hid how long veterans were waiting for care.

The latest pressure on Shinseki adds to a legacy already marred by criticism of how the VA handles the reported 9 million people enrolled in its health care system as the United States winds down one of its longest wars in history. 

The Veterans Affairs department has struggled to resolve a labyrinth of backlogs extending far beyond medical care. Despite vows to eliminate the disabilities backlog by 2015, the pileup reached a “tipping point” last year with more than 611,000 unprocessed claims. And in 2011, an explosive investigation by USA Today exposed how veterans seeking mental health treatment at nearly a third of VA hospitals had to wait far longer than the department claimed.

“This is not a new problem,” Tom Tarantino of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell. “If this type of shell game has bled over into the medical health system -- this has huge implications for veterans’ care across the country.”

Two other top VA officials -- Under Secretary for Benefits Allison Hickey and Under Secretary for Health Robert Petzel -- are also caught up in the dragnet of resignation calls. The department vowed to take “swift and appropriate action” in investigating the allegations against the VA hospital in Phoenix, where wait times for appointments stretched into months, rather than the weeks recorded on official books. Shinseki put three Phoenix employees on administrative leave last week as the investigation moves forward.

Meanwhile, whistleblowers in other parts of the country are reporting similar issues where veterans died as a result of delayed care.

President Obama continued to back his VA secretary, saying in a statement Monday that the White House is confident in Shinseki’s "ability to lead the department and to take appropriate action." Shinseki, a retired four-star Army general with two purple hearts, joined the Obama administration at the beginning of the president’s first term in 2009. 

The nation’s second-largest veterans group, Veterans of Foreign Wars, also stood by Shinseki and said in a statement that it was up to him to “re-establish the credibility of the entire VA health and benefits system.” Other groups and organizations said publicly that they are waiting back until after their monthly meeting with Shinseki.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky didn’t go as far as calling for Shinseki’s resignation, saying that “obviously a new change in leadership might be a step in the right direction.” Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, similarly declined to call for Shinseki’s removal, but declined to give a ringing endorsement.

"He is a fine man, a dedicated patriot," Reid told reporters Tuesday.