Health care

Obama under bipartisan pressure to oust Shinseki on heels of IG report

May 15, 2014 file photo of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki testifying on Capitol Hill in Washington.

May 15, 2014 file photo of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki testifying on Capitol Hill in Washington.  (AP)

President Obama is coming under heavy pressure from both sides of the aisle following a scathing inspector general report to tackle the problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs head-on -- first, by relieving VA Secretary Eric Shinseki of his command. 

Nearly a dozen Democratic senators are now calling for Shinseki's resignation, since the Office of Inspector General released an interim report on Wednesday finding "systemic" problems with clinics lying about patient wait times. 

Other influential Republican lawmakers, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., also pressed Obama to clean house in the wake of that report. 

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, asked about the report and the pressure from lawmakers, said Thursday that the administration is "focused on getting to the root of the problem." 

Carney reiterated that Obama believes Shinseki has "served his country" and is committed to fellow veterans, and wants to wait to see the results of various reports. 

"He believes there ought to be accountability once we establish all the facts," Carney said. 

Notably, though, the White House official overseeing an internal VA review, Rob Nabors, was asked Thursday about the impact of calls from Senate Democrats for Shinseki to resign and responded that the situation is "not status quo." 

The chorus of lawmakers, and powerful organizations, calling for Shinseki's ouster is growing by the day, raising questions about how long the president can keep his current leadership team in place. 

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., among the latest Democrats to break ranks with the administration, said the controversy over the secretary has drawn attention away from the "real issue" of the need to reform the VA. 

"Gen. Shinseki has served our country with distinction," Warner said in a statement. "I now believe he should step aside in order to allow our focus and our efforts to be on making the critically needed changes to fix the VA." 

Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., on Thursday also called on Obama to appoint a new secretary, saying veterans "deserve nothing less than the very best service our nation has to offer." 

More broadly, lawmakers want the president to get more deeply engaged in cleaning up the VA. 

The administration is still awaiting a final IG report as well as the results of a separate internal review. Shinseki released a statement on Wednesday calling the latest findings "reprehensible," but did not offer his resignation. 

The interim report released Wednesday, though, was enough to trigger a new round of calls for Shinseki to leave. It disclosed troubling statistics suggesting workers under-stated wait-times in order to make their internal figures look good. 

The office, in its preliminary findings, determined that veterans at the troubled Phoenix office waited an average of 115 days for a primary care appointment -- far longer than the VA's official statistics showed. Such inappropriate scheduling tactics, according to the report, may be the basis for claims of "secret" waiting lists. 

McCain, who until now had held off on urging Shinseki to resign, said during a press conference at his Phoenix office Wednesday afternoon that "it's time for Secretary Shinseki to step down" -- and that if he won't, "then I call on the president of the United States to relieve him of his duties, fire him." 

The longtime senator and Vietnam veteran also called on the Justice Department to get involved, saying the allegations detail not just administrative issues, but "criminal problems." 

In the wake of the report's release, several Senate Democrats -- including Colorado's Mark Udall, Montana's John Walsh, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Al Franken of Minnesota, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana -- called for Shinseki to leave. 

House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., also called for Shinseki to "resign immediately." 

The report released Wednesday focused on the Phoenix VA facility, while noting that reviews at a "growing number" of facilities have exposed inappropriate scheduling practices throughout the VA system. According to the office, the investigation has now expanded to 42 VA medical facilities nationwide. 

The IG's office released figures showing the Phoenix office "significantly understated" the amount of time patients waited for appointments. 

"To date, our work has substantiated serious conditions at the Phoenix" center, the report said, claiming the delays have "negatively impacted the quality of care." 

According to the IG's office, about 1,400 veterans awaiting a primary care appointment were appropriately included on the electronic wait-list -- but an additional 1,700 veterans waiting for an appointment were left off that list. The omission, the report warned, raises the risk that these veterans will be "forgotten or lost" in the "convoluted" Phoenix system. 

Shinseki, in his statement, said he's ordered the Phoenix system to "immediately triage" each of the 1,700 veterans in order to "bring them timely care." 

The IG's office also said VA national data had claimed patient wait times among a sample of Phoenix veterans typically was about 24 days. But the IG's own review found the average wait was actually 115 days. 

The report would appear to substantiate allegations that clinics played around with the schedules to make it seem like patients were being seen sooner. The VA offices at Phoenix and several other locations have been accused of covering up the long waits by using improper scheduling tactics. About 40 veterans are said to have died while awaiting care in Phoenix. 

Fox News' Ed Henry contributed to this report.