By Martin Matishak - 05/28/14 06:28 PM EDT
Calls for the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki reached a fever pitch on Wednesday after the release of an explosive watchdog report that found “systemic” problems at VA facilities around the country.
Senate Democrats, who had stood unified behind Shinseki last week, began to abandon him in droves after the release of the report, with Sens. Mark Udall (Colo.), John Walsh (Mont.) and Kay Hagan (N.C.) all calling for his ouster.
Adding to Shinseki’s woes, two Republicans with strong ties to the military — Sen. John McCain and Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) — said it was time for new leadership at the VA.
“I haven’t said this before, but I think it’s time for Gen. Shinseki to move on,” McCain said on CNN.
The interim report from the VA’s inspector general (IG) office confirmed reports that a VA clinic in Phoenix kept a secret waiting list to hide delays in treatment.
While the clinic had claimed veterans waited an average of 24 days for care, the IG said the actual waiting time was around 115 days — a finding Shinseki called “reprehensible.”
"I have reviewed the interim report, and the findings are reprehensible to me, to this Department, and to veterans," Shinseki said in a statement.
The IG report recommended that Shinseki “initiate a nationwide review of veterans on wait lists to ensure that veterans are seen in an appropriate time, given their clinical condition.”
Shinseki scrambled to contain the damage, ordering the VA to “immediately triage each of the 1,700 veterans identified" by the inspector general to bring them "timely care." He also said he has placed the leadership of the clinic on administrative leave.
Those actions did little to quiet the storm.
Hagan, who is facing a tough reelection race this year, said the “serious misconduct” revealed by the IG must be addressed by a change in leadership.
“Secretary Shinseki has served our country honorably over many decades, but in the interest of regaining the trust of our veterans, and implementing real and lasting reforms, I believe it is time for him to step aside,” Hagan said.
Democrats dealing with the VA scandal on the campaign trail also distanced themselves from Shinseki, as Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) became the fourth Democratic Senate candidate to call for a shake-up.
The White House gave no clues about whether Shinseki’s job might be at risk, though press secretary Jay Carney said President Obama has been briefed on the IG report and “found the findings extremely troubling.”
"As the president said last week, the VA must not wait for current investigations of VA operations to conclude before taking steps to improve care," Carney said. "It should take immediate steps to reach out to veterans who are currently waiting to schedule appointments and make sure that they are getting better access to care now."
Obama had offered support for the embattled department head last weekend, but warned that he was waiting to examine the findings of the IG report, as well as an internal review of the VA that is being conducted by White House deputy chief of staff Rob Nabors.
On Capitol Hill, the consensus appeared to be growing that Shinseki should take the fall.
McKeon, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said he could no longer stand behind the secretary, calling the VA’s problems “beyond what this nation can bear.”
"It would be best if General Shinseki stepped down as secretary, both as an example for other VA leaders and to lay the groundwork for new leadership to meet with success," McKeon said.
Some lawmakers called for a criminal investigation into the VA’s waiting lists.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said the administration should ask the FBI to look into the “scheduling schemes,” while McCain and Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), the chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, called for Attorney General Eric Holder to launch a criminal investigation.
Miller said Shinseki, a retired four-star general, is a “good man” who appears "oblivious" to the challenges facing his department.
"VA needs a leader who will take swift and decisive action to discipline employees responsible for mismanagement, negligence and corruption that harms veterans while taking bold steps to replace the department’s culture of complacency with a climate of accountability," Miller said.
— This story was corrected at 7:33 p.m.