American Legion calls for VA Secretary, two others to resign

Monday - 5/5/2014, 4:51pm EDT

The American Legion is calling for President Barack Obama to fire three top executives at the Veterans Affairs Department, including Secretary Eric Shinseki.

American Legion National Cmdr. Daniel Dellinger said during a press conference Monday that Shinseki, Robert Petzel, the undersecretary for Health, and retired Brig. Gen. Allison Hickey, the undersecretary for Benefits, should be removed or should resign immediately in the wake of a series reports and findings of corruption, fraud and overall management incompetence at veterans' hospitals around the country.

"It's been more than 30 years since the American Legion has called for the resignation of a public official. It's not something we do lightly," said Dellinger. "But we, today, because it's our responsibility as advocates for the men and women who have worn this nation's uniform. In late April, allegations from multiple whistleblowers of a secret waiting list at a Phoenix VA healthcare system that may have resulted in the deaths of approximately 40 veterans. VA previously had acknowledged that 23 veterans throughout the healthcare system had died as a result of delayed care in recent years. Then yesterday, a copy of the findings of an investigation by VA's office of the medical inspector was shared with the USA Today. Those results [show] Department of Veterans Affairs clinic in Fort Collins, Colo., were instructed last year how to falsify appointment records so it appeared the small staff of doctors seeing patients within the agency's goal of 14 days according to the investigation. These disturbing reports are part of what appear to be a pattern of scandals that have affected the entire system."

Dellinger said the American Legion brought its concerns to Shinseki and President Obama in recent weeks, but decided this morning that the time has come to go public with a call for new leadership at VA.

"The existing leadership has exhibited a pattern of bureaucratic incompetence and failed leadership that has been amplified in recent weeks," he said. "Patient deaths are tragic, and preventable patient deaths are unacceptable. But the failure to disclose safety information or worse, to cover up mistakes is unforgivable as is fostering a culture non-disclosure. VA leadership has demonstrated its incompetence through the preventable deaths of veterans, long waits for medical care and benefit claims backlog numbering in excess of 596,000 and awarding of bonuses to senior executives who have overseen such operations."

Dellinger said he expects the President to take steps to change VA leadership immediately and it's something he should have done months ago.

In an email to Federal News Radio, VA spokesman Drew Brookie said VA takes allegations about patient care or misconduct by employees very seriously.

"If the VA Office of Inspector General's investigation substantiates allegations of employee misconduct, swift and appropriate action will be taken," he said. "Veterans deserve to have full faith in their VA care."

He added that under the leadership of Shinseki and his team, VA has made strong progress in better serving veterans.

"VA's progress includes enrolling 2 million more Veterans in high-quality VA healthcare, reducing Veterans' homelessness by 24 percent, providing Post-9/11 GI Bill educational benefits to more than one million students, and decreasing the disability claims backlog by nearly 50 percent," Brookie said.

Last week, the President said he intends to nominate Dr. Jeffrey Murawsky to replace Petzel.

"As the President said last week, we take the allegations around the Phoenix situation very seriously," said White House Director of Special Media Shin Inouye in an email. "That's why he immediately directed Secretary Shinseki to investigate, and Secretary Shinseki has also invited the independent Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General to conduct a comprehensive review. We must ensure that our nation's veterans get the benefits and services that they deserve and have earned. The President remains confident in Secretary Shinseki's ability to lead the Department and to take appropriate action based on the IG's findings."

The Veterans of Foreign Wars came out against the American Legion's call for a change in VA's leadership.

"It is paramount that Secretary Shinseki get publicly in front of this immediately to address the valid concerns of veterans and their families, and to reestablish the credibility of the entire VA health and benefits systems, and that of his own office," said VFW National Commander William Thien in a statement. "The VFW looks forward to the swift completion of the ongoing VA Inspector General's investigation, and we also support closer congressional oversight to help ensure that the VA does not fail in its mission to care for wounded, ill and injured veterans and their survivors."