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Embattled VA Secretary Shinseki refusing to resign

| Thursday, May 8, 2014, 9:06 a.m.
In this Oct. 9, 2013, file photo, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki listens as he testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington.

WASHINGTON — Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki brushed aside calls for his resignation on Thursday and got an unexpected political lifeline Thursday from House Speaker John Boehner in the wake of reports that 40 patients died because of delayed treatment at an agency hospital.

“I'm not ready to join the chorus of people calling on him to step down,” Boehner, R-Ohio, said at a news conference, adding that there is a “systemic management issue throughout the VA that needs to be addressed.”

He said the House is working on legislation that would give head of the agency “more flexibility to fire people.”

The Department of Veterans Affairs has long had a seemingly endless backlog and exceedingly long delays for treatment.

For his part, Shinseki emphasized his own determination to remain in the Cabinet in an interview on CBS. “I take every one of these incidents and allegations seriously, and we're going to go and investigate,” he said.

Shinseki, a retired Army general, said in the interview that he sent inspectors to Phoenix immediately when he learned of reports about the deaths.

The White House has voiced support amid the calls for Shinseki's ouster from the American Legion as well as from Republican Sens. Richard Burr of North Carolina, John Cornyn of Texas and Jerry Moran of Kansas.

At least six veterans died and 16 fell ill in a Legionnaires' disease outbreak at the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said lasted from February 2011 to November 2012. But a Tribune-Review investigation found alarmingly high levels of Legionella — the bacteria that cause the deadly form of pneumonia — in the VA's water system as far back as 2007 at the University Drive hospital in Oakland.

The newspaper also revealed lax oversight of the VA health care system, insufficient monitoring of its water system for Legionella and a history of the outbreak's Legionella strain existing as far back as 30 years.

“As you know, management shortfalls also led to the loss of life for veterans at the Pittsburgh VA system,” U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Lehigh Valley, wrote to Shinseki in a letter released publicly Thursday.

Toomey, U.S. Sen. Robert Casey, D-Scranton, and other members of Congress have expressed frustration that the VA punished no one for the outbreak in Pittsburgh despite several federal investigations and Congressional hearings identifying large-scale failures.

Toomey asked Shinseki for assurances that if allegations of “gross mismanagement at the Phoenix VA” that allegedly led to deaths for some 40 veterans on a secret waiting list turn out to be true, executives will face discipline this time.

The regional VA director overseeing the VA Pittsburgh and other facilities in Pennsylvania and all or parts of several surrounding states, Michael Moreland, retired last year after collecting tens of thousands of dollars in bonuses for performance reviews and lifetime achievement.

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