Boehner 'closer' to calling for ouster of U.S. Veterans Affairs chief

WASHINGTON Thu May 22, 2014 4:14pm EDT

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WASHINGTON May 22 (Reuters) - U.S. House Speaker John Boehner said on Thursday he is getting "closer" to calling for the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, but remains unconvinced that his removal would solve the agency's problems.

Boehner said he lacked confidence that the VA's own inspector general has the "interest or capacity" to root out the source and full extent of problems that have led to 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," but stopped short of calling for the ouster of Shinseki, a retired four-star general.

"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 was ousted it would shift attention to confirmation hearings for a replacement rather than fixing problems at the VA.

"All that I do know is that the House of Representatives has a responsibility to get to the bottom of these issues and we will be working forthrightly to do that," Boehner said.

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, is placing huge stress 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 that this could include looking at how veterans receive medical care and that perhaps it should sometimes be provided "outside the walls" of the VA. She talked about providing help to veterans "closer to home," especially in rural areas. (Additional reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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