Members of Hawaii’s congressional delegation and key state legislators say they are deeply troubled by allegations that excessive waiting times for veterans in need of government health care has cost lives.

For now, however, they are not calling for the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki even as some of their colleagues are demanding that he quit or be fired over the controversy.

Eric Shinseki

Veterans Administration Secretary Eric Shinseki and Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta answer questions during a press conference. May 21, 2012.

DoD photo: Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley

“No veteran should ever suffer or die as they wait to see a doctor, especially as a result of deliberate misconduct,” said U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a military police captain with the Hawaii Army National Guard who has served overseas.

In a statement emailed to Civil Beat, Gabbard said, “What allegedly occurred at the Phoenix VA Health Care System is shameful, and the allegations point to criminal actions resulting not only in disrespecting the service of our veterans, but also in serious illness, death, and pain for veterans and their families. Those responsible must be held accountable for these inexcusable and appalling actions.”

Gabbard supports “a comprehensive investigation” of the VA “to fix this problem.”

She added, “It’s critical at this juncture that we stay focused on constructive actions that best serve our veterans, and not fall into the trap of taking symbolic actions that do nothing to improve the care veterans receive.”

State Sen. Will Espero, head of the Senate committee that oversees military affairs, went a little further, highlighting the need for a quality investigation that could lead to questions about whether Shinseki should be pushed out.

“The allegations are very shocking and disturbing,” said Espero, the son of a retired Navy veteran and the father of a Marine Corps captain. “It is important that Gen. Shinseki be as transparent as he can be and make certain the proper people are investigating. … We are talking about possible criminal issues. And if there were some shortcomings from himself or people who reported to him, then we need to look at whether he should continue serving in that position or not.”

Hawaii Not Part of Investigation

The VA Inspector General’s office said late Tuesday that 26 facilities, including the one in Phoenix, are being investigated nationwide — up from 10 just last week, according to The Associated Press.

Hawaii is not part of that investigation, said Patricia Matthews, public affairs officer for the VA Pacific Islands Health Care System. The office provides support to veterans throughout the Hawaiian Islands as well as in American Samoa and Saipan.

Matthews, however, said Shinseki has directed the Veterans Health Administration to complete a nationwide “access review.”

“The purpose of this review is to ensure a full understanding of the VA’s policy and continued integrity in managing patient access to care,” she said. “As part of the review during the next several weeks, a national face-to-face audit will be conducted at all clinics for every VA medical center (including) community-based outpatient clinics.”

The VA care debacle is reverberating locally. Ronald Han Jr, director of the state’s office of veterans services at Tripler Army Medical Center, said there has been “heightened awareness” of the issues veterans face.

“There is always need for improvement in services — you can never get enough,” he said. “Some of our veterans who have received health care seem very satisfied. But we are watching this play out. You can’t turn on any media and not see that.”

Growing Demands for Resignation

The American Legion is among the veterans groups calling for Shinseki’s resignation or firing, something that several Republicans in Congress have also demanded. On Wednesday, the first Democrats in Congress joined the growing chorus for Shinseki’s head.

Also on Wednesday, Shinseki’s boss, President Barack Obama, defended him at a hastily arranged press conference at the White House. But the commander in chief also called the allegations of misconduct at VA hospitals “dishonorable” and said they would not be tolerated by his administration.

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, a top Republican in the Senate, called on Obama to “back off” plans to nominate Jeffrey Murawsky to replace the VA’s undersecretary for health care, Robert Petzel, who departed the VA last week as the scandal grew.

DoD photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo (Released)

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki testifying before the U.S. House, July 25, 2012

In the meantime, the House voted 390-33 Wednesday to grant the VA secretary expanded authority to fire senior executives for poor performance. Gabbard voted for the bill but U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa voted against it.

Asked about the controversy surrounding Shinseki, a spokesman for Hanabusa directed Civil Beat to an interview the congresswoman did Wednesday with C-SPAN. The interview was conducted about 90 minutes before Shinseki was scheduled to meet with the president at the White House.

Asked whether the general should resign, Hanabusa told C-SPAN that there was not enough information about the situation “at this time.” Any decision about quitting, she said, is between Obama and Shinseki “at this point in time.”

Hanabusa said that in her interactions with Shinseki, she found him “receptive to concerns and addressed them. So I’d like to see how this investigation continues.”

It’s estimated that about 11 percent of Hawaii’s population, or 117,000 people, is comprised of veterans. Hanabusa said that she meets with veterans in the islands and has heard their concerns about services, but nothing along the lines of what is alleged to have happened in Phoenix.

Civil Beat also asked U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono for her response regarding the Shinseki controversy. Her staff responded by emailing excerpts from part of a Senate committee hearing on May 15, the one where Shinseki said he was “mad as hell” about the allegations.

“The veterans health care system is a promise that we made to Americans — America’s veterans that we will take care of them in return for their service and sacrifice,” she said at the hearing. “The close to 10 million veterans that access care through the VA system need to trust that they are receiving high quality care when they need it.”

In an email to Civil Beat, U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz said, “As a former Chief of Staff of the Army and a veteran, General Shinseki understands how important it is for our veterans to access quality and timely care. I am eager to learn more from the VA’s internal investigations and Congressional oversight whether these recent incidents are isolated or are part of a larger pattern.”

Shinseki Born on Kauai

Shinseki’s fate is sensitive for politicians in Hawaii, particularly those who are running for Congress this year.

He is well regarded in the islands, where many influential people know him personally. But Hawaii, especially Oahu, isn’t just home to a lot of veterans, it houses active military and their dependents and is the headquarters for the United States Pacific Command.

Recent news reports have cited a serious backlog in local veterans medical cases, and the Hawaii congressional delegation has fought hard to prevent cuts to veterans benefits.

Shinseki, the first Asian American to become a United States Army four-star general, was born in Lihue, Kauai, in 1942. Many in the islands are proud of the local boy who went far. His military career included two combat tours in Vietnam, where he was wounded several times.

A highly decorated soldier, Shinseki’s honors include two Purple Hearts and three Bronze Stars. Among his many assignments, Shinseki was stationed in Hawaii. His last military position was that of the U.S. Army chief of staff.

It was on that job, in 2003, that Shinseki argued that several hundred thousand troops would be needed to secure Iraq following the American-led invasion. That angered then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who argued a much smaller force would be sufficient. Shinseki retired that year, but many of his supporters in the military believe the deterioration of the situation in Iraq proved him right.

Shinseki is so revered that the U.S. Army Museum of Hawaii in Fort DeRussy in Waikiki features a Gen. Eric K. Shinseki exhibit.

Shinseki and Hawaii’s Campaign Trail

State Rep. Mark Takai, who is the chairman of the House committee that address veterans and military affairs and a candidate against Espero in the Democratic primary for the 1st Congressional District, told Civil Beat he is deeply troubled by what has happened at the VA.

“I am very upset because the priority and the loyalty and the focus need to be on the veterans,” said Takai, a lieutenant colonel in the Hawaii Army National Guard who has served in the Middle East. “If someone is trying to save their jobs or protect their butts at the cost of veterans lives, I am disgusted by that.”

Still, Takai continues to support Shinseki.

“I think he is the right man to lead the VA,” he said. “He needs to work quickly to investigate these allegations, and if that means firing people and making changes, he’s got to do it. But to get rid of the secretary right now is shortsighted, because if there is anybody who can address this crisis, I believe Gen. Shinseki is the right person.”

Contact Chad Blair via email at cblair@civilbeat.com or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.


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