By Susan Cornwell and David Lawder
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Republicans stepped up their attacks on the Obama administration over a deepening Veterans Affairs healthcare delay scandal on Thursday, but House Speaker John Boehner again declined to join a growing list of lawmakers calling for VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign.
Boehner told reporters he was still not convinced that Shinseki’s ouster would solve the VA’s problems. Instead, he sought to keep the pressure on President Barack Obama for VA scheduling abuses that covered up monthslong delays for veterans’ medical care appointments.
“I’m going to continue to reserve judgment on General Shinseki,” Boehner said, adding: “The real issue here is the president is the one who should be held accountable.”
On Wednesday, the Department of Veterans Affairs’ inspector general confirmed in an interim report that Phoenix VA officials manipulated data to vastly understate appointment waiting times for veterans, and said the problem was “systemic” throughout the VA. It added that the data was used to calculate bonus awards.
The report prompted dozens of lawmakers from both parties to turn against Shinseki and demand his resignation.
Several more prominent Democratic senators joined these calls on Thursday, including Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Jeff Merkley of Oregon, who face tight re-election races. Also asking Shinseki to step aside were both of Virginia’s Democratic senators, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine.
CRISIS OF CONFIDENCE
Shinseki is expected to address the VA probes on Friday in a speech to a conference on homeless veterans, an agency official said.
Shinseki met with leaders of veterans groups to outline his action plan, but the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America said this did not restore their confidence in him.
“We still have serious questions about whether the secretary has the tools, resources, and the confidence of VA staff and veterans to create real reform,” said Derek Bennett, the group’s chief of staff.
The scandal exploded earlier this month after VA doctors in Phoenix went public with allegations that some 40 veterans had died while waiting months for primary-care appointments.
White House spokesman Jay Carney repeatedly declined to say whether Obama still has confidence in Shinseki but added that the president wanted accountability based on the outcome of investigations and results of an internal VA audit due shortly.
Meanwhile, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives is pursuing its own investigation into the care delay scandal and new legislation to address it.
These include a measures from Representative Jeff Miller of Florida, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, to freeze VA bonus awards for five years and to order that veterans be allowed to seek private care at the agency’s expense if they are forced to wait more than 30 days for an appointment.
Miller, frustrated with what he calls an “inadequate” VA response to his committee’s subpoenas for emails and other correspondence related to the Phoenix secret waiting lists, said he is planning to file a federal court petition to try to compel the agency to turn over more documents.
(Additional reporting by David Alexander and Richard Cowan, writing by David Lawder; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)