WASHINGTON - Support for embattled Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki eroded quickly Thursday, especially among congressional Democrats facing tough re-election campaigns, even as Shinseki continued to fight for his job amid allegations of delayed medical care and misconduct at VA facilities nationwide.
Shinseki spoke privately with lawmakers and met with nearly two dozen veterans groups, assuring them that he takes the reports seriously and is moving swiftly to fix problems. On Friday, he is to address the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, outlining his plans for corrections.
A federal investigation of operations in the troubled Phoenix VA Health Care System found that about 1,700 veterans in need of care were "at risk of being lost or forgotten" after being kept off an official waiting list. While initially focused on Phoenix, the investigation described Wednesday by the VA Department's inspector general found broad and deep-seated problems in the sprawling health care system, which provides medical care to about 6.5 million veterans annually.
The interim report confirmed earlier allegations of excessive waiting times for care in Phoenix, with an average 115-day wait for a first appointment for those on the waiting list -- nearly five times as long as the 24-day average the hospital had reported.
House Speaker John Boehner and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said they were reserving judgment about Shinseki. But with the situation threatening to affect congressional elections in November, the chorus of lawmakers calling for his departure grew by the hour.
Democratic Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine of Virginia, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Jeff Merkley of Oregon and New Mexico's Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich all urged Shinseki to step aside. Eleven Senate Democrats have called for Shinseki's resignation since Wednesday, when the VA inspector general report came out. All but Heinrich are on the ballot this fall.
White House press secretary Jay Carney declined to say whether President Barack Obama still has full confidence in Shinseki, who has led the VA since the start of the Obama administration. The president is waiting for a full investigation into the VA before deciding who should be held accountable, Carney said.
Rep. Steve Israel, the New York Democrat who chairs the party's campaign committee in the House, called for a criminal investigation of the department by the Justice Department and said of Shinseki, "If his resignation is what it takes to fix the problem, then yes, he should resign."
And Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, said that while he respects Shinseki, a former four-star Army general who served in Vietnam, the IG's report "does really move us closer to that point where we have to question his leadership."
Durbin told radio station WGLT in Normal, Illinois: "If this is what I think it is, it could mean we need new leadership."
The American Legion and dozens of Republicans have called for Shinseki to resign, including Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, and Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, senior Republican on the Senate veterans panel. Arizona's two Republican senators, John McCain and Jeff Flake, also have called for Shinseki to step down.
The congressional calls for Shinseki's resignation were mixed with criticism of a bonus system at the VA that has rewarded officials for meeting performance targets that proved to be unreasonable, including a maximum two-week waiting period for first-time appointments.
VA guidelines say veterans should be seen within 14 days of their desired date for a primary care appointment. Lawmakers have called that target unrealistic and said basing employee bonuses and pay raises on it is outrageous. The target encourages employees to "game" the appointment system in order to collect bonuses based on on-time performance, lawmakers from both parties said at a House hearing late Wednesday on the VA mess.
"The last time I saw an example of this was Enron," said Rep. Bill Flores, R-Texas. "We all know what happened at Enron ... a flawed bonus system (was) driving bad behavior."
Enron, a now-defunct energy giant, tinkered with its books to boost corporate income while hiding underlying problems and bad deals.
At the VA, the inspector general described a process in which schedulers ignored the date that a provider or veteran wanted for an appointment. Instead, the scheduler selected the next available appointment and used that as the baseline, resulting in a false zero-day wait time.
Thomas Lynch, an administrator at the Veterans Health Administration, an arm of the VA, said at the hearing that the bonus system had had an unintended negative effect.
"Our performance measures have become our goals, not tools to help us understand where we needed to invest resources," he told the House Veterans Affairs Committee. "We undermined the integrity of our data."
A VA official said Shinseki met with leaders of 23 military and veterans service organizations Thursday. Shinseki told the groups that the findings in the IG report were "reprehensible," and said he has directed the agency to immediately contact each of the 1,700 veterans waiting for primary care appointments in Phoenix, the official said.
Derek Bennett, chief of staff at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said after the meeting that Shinseki "sounded like a guy who is absolutely committed to fixing the problems at VA. He didn't sound like someone with one foot out the door."
Shinseki has spoken privately this week with Democratic lawmakers and other supporters, including Pelosi, D-Calif., House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland, Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. Begich and Murray serve on the veterans panel, and Murray is a former chairwoman.
Shinseki is expected to release results as soon as Friday of a system-wide audit of scheduling policy and practices.