Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, is joined by Republican members and veterans in calling for changes at Veterans Administration hospitals. / J. Scott Applewhite, AP
WASHINGTON - The resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki shifts the focus on Capitol Hill to confirming a new secretary and advancing legislation to address the inadequacies at the department and VA health care facilities.
"Right now, 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," said House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla.
Miller suggested further resignations may be in order. "Nearly every member of Shinseki's inner circle failed him in a major way," he said.
Last week, the House passed with bipartisan support a bill to grant the VA secretary greater authority to fire senior executives. The House has also approved legislation that would put a moratorium on bonuses for VA officials for five years. Miller is also working on legislation that would make it easier for veterans to seek private care if they've been on VA waiting lists for more than 30 days. A vote is expected in June.
In a statement, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, a veteran, said she is drafting legislation to "ensure that veterans are immediately able to access care from a doctor, whether in the VA system or not." She said Congress needs to "take creative steps that will yield immediate results."
The Senate is in recess this week, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said that the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee will begin immediate work on "appropriate legislation" to address the VA's problems.
"I will do everything I can to ensure that the Congress works to address the root causes of these systematic problems so that the men and women returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan, and those veterans already in the VA system, receive the care they deserve," Reid said.
Democrats blocked a vote before the recess on a bill by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., that mirrors the House-passed bill to make it easier to fire VA executives. The legislation has seven Democratic co-sponsors. "This is a common sense, bipartisan reform that deserves a vote in the Senate as soon as possible so we can better care for those who have courageously served our nation," Rubio said Friday.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, also called on the Senate to pass Rubio's legislation. He said the president needs to outline a vision for overhauling the VA. "We'll hold the president accountable until he makes things right," Boehner said.
A preliminary report from the inspector general at Veterans Affairs released this week found systemic problems with veterans' ability to receive timely care, as well as efforts by VA employees to obscure the number of veterans waiting for care.
The findings have prompted a fierce backlash from lawmakers. More than one quarter of lawmakers had called for Shinseki's resignation before it was made official Friday.
President Obama appointed Department of Veterans Affairs Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson to serve as temporary head of the agency until a new secretary can be confirmed by the Senate. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the president must appoint a "capable leader and manager who possesses the skills, leadership ability and determination to correct the failings of the VA."
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a senior member of the Veterans Affairs Committee, said she would be "working closely" with the administration to find a new secretary, and she also called on VA employees to do their part in revamping the agenda. "This transition is also a time for every employee at the VA to step up and do everything they can to help veterans and work toward a culture of transparency as changes are being implemented," she said.
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