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VA Secretary Apologizes For 'Indefensible' Treatment Delays


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. Eric Shinseki, the embattled secretary of Veterans Affairs, meets this hour with President Obama at the White House. Now, earlier today, Shinseki spoke at a conference on homeless veterans, and addressed what he called the elephant in the room. The issue of VA clinics lying about how quickly they were seeing patients.


ERIC SHINSEKI: Given the facts I now know, I apologize as the senior leader of the Department of Veterans Affairs. I extend an apology to the people whom I care most deeply about. And that's the veterans of this great country. To their families and loved ones, who I have been honored to serve.

INSKEEP: That's General Eric Shinseki earlier this morning. NPR's Quil Lawrence covers veterans affairs, was listening to the secretary's statements. And Quil, what impressions struck you?

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Well, he was more, I guess, heartfelt and emotional then we've seen him in the past. He said that he honestly believed that this had been an isolated problem. The problem of VA executives lying about their wait times, and then collecting bonuses for meeting their performance goals. And Shinseki said he was surprised.

INSKEEP: He was surprised to learn about this? That's what you're saying?

LAWRENCE: Yeah, he said, and we can listen to him here, that it was something he rarely encountered.


SHINSEKI: This is something I rarely encountered during 38 years in uniform. And so, I will not defend it because it is indefensible, but I can take responsibility for it. And I do.

LAWRENCE: He said he's now going to support - and this is a switch - he's going to support a bill that's in Congress to give his own office more power to hire and fire people in the VA. And he's repeated a plan that the VA is going to expand the use of private health care, to try and take care of veterans who've been waiting more than 30 days.

INSKEEP: Well, now that's very interesting that he would support that bill in Congress because the implied message there is I need more power in order to handle a situation like this. But he said I take responsibility for it and there are more than 100 members of Congress, I believe, who have said he should take responsibility by stepping down. Can a cabinet member remain at his post when more than 100 members of Congress want him to leave?

LAWRENCE: About half an hour ago, I would've said that yes, he's digging in and he's withstood this sort of political firestorm before. The White House probably wouldn't have let him go give this speech if they were planning on firing him later today. But just before I walked in to the studio, we heard that Illinois Democrat Tammy Duckworth, she told The Washington Post just this morning, that she would also like Shinseki to step down. She's a vet. She lost both legs in Iraq, but she also worked with Shinseki at the VA. So that is a big blow.

INSKEEP: So we have a situation where we do not know at this hour if Eric Shinseki is going to be the man who's called upon to fix the problem, or if there will be a successor named to fix the problem. Shinseki is meeting with President Obama this morning at the White House and we'll wait for news from that. But whoever ends up in charge of the VA, what would it take to fix this problem, Quil Lawrence?

LAWRENCE: Well, this is sort of the debate behind the politics. This has become something of an election-year issue, so everyone in a tight race apparently wants to jump on the record as calling for Shinseki's head. But it's notable that House Speaker John Boehner says he keeps hearing from vets that firing Shinseki won't solve the problem. Getting someone in there who would have to be confirmed, and then get up to speed, wouldn't be the best thing for vets.

Only one of the major veteran service organizations have called for Shinseki to step down. The others apparently think, maybe, especially with his feet held to the fire like this, Shinseki can get to work. But, with this lack of political support and with maybe some fear that confidence among veterans is fading - if vets don't have faith in the VA, then they don't use the care. And Shinseki will fail at his mission of getting them into the VA to use the care.

INSKEEP: So just to be clear on the scorecard here, Democrats, who are on the defensive for calling for Shinseki's head, but John Boehner, the Republican speaker of the house, is saying that it might not be a good idea to replace him.

LAWRENCE: Right, but he's not for election this year.

INSKEEP: At least, in any case, not an endangered seat. That's NPR's Quil Lawrence. Thanks very much.

LAWRENCE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Quil Lawrence
Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering national security, climate and veterans' issues nationwide. Previously he was NPR's Bureau Chief in Kabul and Baghdad.