(Adds details on other lawmakers, candidate seeking ouster)
By David Lawder
WASHINGTON, May 22 (Reuters) - U.S. House Speaker John Boehner said on Thursday he is “getting closer” to asking Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign, saying he is still unconvinced that this would solve the agency’s problems.
But another member of the House Republican leadership, Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, broke ranks to join a growing list of lawmakers and candidates calling on Shinseki to quit.
“I believe new leadership at the Department of Veterans Affairs is imperative to fixing the wrong that this massive bureaucracy has done to the men and women we owe so much to,” McCarthy said in a statement.
Some Democrats also are starting to call for the retired four-star Army general to step down despite continued support from President Barack Obama, including representatives David Scott and John Barrow of Georgia.
Alison Lundergan Grimes, who is running against Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, also joined the list, saying on her Facebook page that Shinseki cannot repair a “breach of trust” with veterans. McConnell thus far has declined to pass judgment on the VA chief.
Boehner said he lacked confidence the VA’s own inspector general has the “interest or capacity” to root out the source and full extent of problems behind allegations that VA medical centers across the country were covering up long wait times for veteran care appointments.
VA doctors in Phoenix say 40 veterans died while waiting for care at local VA facilities.
Boehner said continued reports of delayed care and secret waiting lists constitute a “systemic failure,”
“I’ve not called for General Shinseki to resign, although I have to admit I‘m getting a little closer,” said Boehner, a Republican. He explained if Shinseki were ousted it would shift attention to confirmation hearings for a replacement rather than fixing problems at the VA.
The House Veterans Affairs Committee is pursuing its own investigation into the care delays, which include subpoenas for documents related to secret waiting lists at VA facilities in Phoenix.
“These are men and women who have served our country and we’re not just letting them down, we’re letting them die,” Boehner said. “This is awful stuff, and somebody ought to be held accountable for it.”
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi on Thursday said a broader restructuring of the VA was perhaps needed.
She told reporters that relatively new benefit programs for veterans to treat post-traumatic stress and Agent Orange exposure, coupled with 2 million more veterans in the past five years, are placing huge demand on the VA.
“I would hope that the committees of jurisdiction...look to see how we think in a bigger way on how we meet the needs of our veterans,” Pelosi said, referring to Congress possibly undertaking a major legislative rewrite of the way veterans’ benefits are now administered.
Pelosi added this could include looking at how veterans receive medical care and perhaps providing it “outside the walls” of the VA. She said this could include care “closer to home,” especially in rural areas. (Additional reporting by Richard Cowan, editing by Lisa Shumaker and Cynthia Osterman)