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Should VA Secretary Shinseki Step Down?


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. This coming week, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki is expected to update President Obama on a nationwide review on VA facilities. Many VA hospitals have been accused of covering up long wait times for veterans and cooking the books to hide these delays. Shinseki announced yesterday that some VA clinics would enhance their capacity and the administration would also make it easier for veterans to get more of their care from private facilities.

Still, some veterans groups and members of Congress have called on Secretary Shinseki to resign. So far, President Obama is standing by him. Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut serves on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and the Armed Services Committee. He joins me now to talk more about this. Senator Blumenthal, thanks so much for being with us.

SENATOR RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: Wonderful to be with you on this holiday weekend. Thank you.

MARTIN: You have been a critic of the VA's handling of this crisis, but you've stopped short of calling for Secretary Shinseki to step down. Do you think, though, that the VA's own internal reviews of the situation are enough?

BLUMENTHAL: The internal reviews have to be done, but everybody has an interest in this issue. So I think these audits need to be made public, and there needs to be very likely Department of Justice involvement in the ongoing investigation by the Inspector General of the VA because those allegations under investigation may be criminal, involving violations of criminal laws, and potential prosecutions.

MARTIN: There are more veterans turning to the VA for help than there have been for a long time. You've got a generation of Vietnam vets, veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Does the system as it exists today have the resources to handle them?

BLUMENTHAL: The answer, in my view, is no. The Veterans Administration lacks resources, and those resources are absolutely critical to meeting the demands on the VA now and in the future. Remember, in the next five years, 5 million men and women will become veterans. Medical care will be under increasing demand. There's 6.5 million veterans right now who make use of the VA facilities, 283,000 a day. So there's a real issue of access. It isn't the quality of the medical care. It is access, sufficient resources.

MARTIN: Is this issue, then, bigger than Eric Shinseki, the Secretary of the VA?

BLUMENTHAL: Way bigger. That's why the calls for his resignation, whether you agree or disagree, are really not going to solve the basic systemic problem which involves practices and procedures that have existed for many years - so have the complaints - and also a culture that has existed for many years and a bureaucracy that predates Eric Shinseki. And Secretary Shinseki has to show some people the door. He needs to clean house. And this set of issues is an opportunity.

MARTIN: Do you think those management changes should wait until the Inspector General's review is done?

BLUMENTHAL: I think the Inspector General has to complete his work much more quickly than right now publicly he said he will.

MARTIN: Which is August.

BLUMENTHAL: Which is August. Has to be done in weeks, not months. But clearly, the magnitude, scope, and scale of this crisis demands action to change the management team now.

MARTIN: Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. He is a member of both the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee in the Armed Services Committee. Thanks so much for talking with us, Senator.

BLUMENTHAL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.