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Sat May 31, 2014
Catching Up: What The VA Secretary's Resignation Means
Originally published on Sat May 31, 2014 5:20 pm
ARUN RATH, HOST:
Eric Shinseki, the highest ranking Asian-American ever to serve, has had a stellar military career - a decorated combat veteran who went on to become Army Chief of Staff, a member of The Joint Chiefs and a Four-Star General. Five years ago, the Senate unanimously confirmed Shinseki as President Obama's Secretary of Veteran's Affairs, but some of those same Senators called for his resignation after a major scandal at the VA broke last month. Veterans have been waiting months to get care at VA hospitals. Dozens of hospitals falsified records in order to keep those egregious wait times secret. Yesterday, President Obama said Shinseki had offered his resignation - saying the VA needed new leadership to address it's problems.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: He does not want to be a distraction because his priority is to fix the problem and make sure our vets are getting the care that they need.
RATH: I'm joined now by NPR's Quil Lawrence, who covers veterans issues. And, Quil, there have been calls for Shinseki's resignation ever since the scandal first broke, but he has been reluctant to step down. What ultimately forced him to leave?
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: I think there are two threads here and one of them is political. Some people are calling for his resignation right away are people who have been calling for his resignation for over a year now over issues of the VA disability claims backlog. That was a big deal last year. Eventually, the VA was able to bring that well under control. So there's this political issue, it's an election year. But there's also a substantive issue, which is a disconnect.
The statistics in the VA were saying that wait times were very short to get appointments. People I was talking to were saying - no we're waiting forever. And Shinseki had to admit, yesterday morning before he went to the White House, that he had been unaware of the extent of this problem. He had believed his Senior staff that these were isolated cases where VA hospitals and clinics were misrepresenting how long patients were waiting. He had to admit yesterday that it was widespread, systemic. That perhaps 60 percent of VA clinics were lying about their statistics on wait times.
RATH: So now that he has resigned, what kind of reaction are you hearing from veterans' groups?
LAWRENCE: Some of them are hoping that there will be someone new who will have, I guess, better communication skills with Congress and with the media. Others are very concerned. They say that Shinseki, he had been in the job for over five years. He knew the system very well. Now, whoever comes in is going to have a confirmation process. It's likely that could become political. They'll be finishing up the Obama administration. And people are really worried that they'll have lost all sorts of momentum.
RATH: Now the president's choice to fill in as interim secretary is Sloan Gibson. What can you tell us about him?
LAWRENCE: Well, not very much. He used to be the head of the USO. He's only been at the VA for three months. What people are saying needs to happen, in terms of the new VA secretary, is that it's got to be someone with the same sort of credentials in a way that Shinseki had - probably another general, possibly who's been to war. Or I've heard people mention Tammy Duckworth, who's currently in the House of Representatives, but she had worked at the VA before. She's an Iraq vet. She lost both her legs in Iraq. There are people are talking about General Pete Chiarelli, a former Army Vice Chief of Staff - someone who could be forceful, who knows these issues already and could go into Congress and have a good rapport with them without necessarily shrinking at some of the hard questioning you get sometimes in congressional hearings.
RATH: That's NPR's Quil Lawrence. Quil, thanks very much.
LAWRENCE: Thanks, Arun. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.