Hagel Backs Shinseki But Cites Accountability

New Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speaks during a news conference regarding the automatic spending cuts, Friday, March 1, 2013.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel gave only lukewarm support Sunday to retired Gen. Eric Shinseki in his struggle to stay on as the head of the Department of Veterans Affairs following allegations of secret waiting lists at VA hospitals.

"I do support Gen. Shinseki, but there's no margin here," Hagel said on ABC's "This Week" program. As the former Army chief of staff, Shinseki understands the concept of command accountability better than most and he might have to consider stepping down if the allegations are proven, Hagel said.

The defense secretary explained that the current focus on allegations of secret waiting lists overlooked the VA's long-standing failure to eliminate or drastically reduce the backlog of veterans waiting for treatment and appointments.

"No, it's not good enough," Hagel said of the VA's performance. "It has to be better. This is something that should have been looked at years and years ago."

Hagel has experience in the VA as he served under President Reagan as the VA's deputy chief. He resigned after two years over a disagreement on funding.

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he also supported Shinseki. On CBS' "Face The Nation," Gates said the alleged failures at the VA were likely the fault of mid-level managers that escaped Shinseki's notice in the vast VA bureaucracy.

"He sits astride a tough bureaucracy," Gates said of Shinseki. Only the Defense Department's bureaucracy rivaled the VA's in terms of the difficulties posed to management, Gates said.

The American Legion last week called for the resignations of Shinseki, Undersecretary for Health Robert Petzel and Undersecretary for Benefits Allison Hickey.

In a statement, Veterans of Foreign Wars National Commander William A. Thien did not back the Legion in calling for Shinseki's ouster but warned that Shinseki must "re-establish the credibility of the entire VA health and benefits systems, and that of his own office."

The White House has supported Shinseki while pointing to an ongoing investigation by the VA's Inspector General on the allegations that management at several VA hospitals kept secret waiting lists that resulted in delays of treatment and possibly the deaths of veterans.

"The president remains confident in Secretary Shinseki's ability to lead the department and to take appropriate action based on the IG's findings," the White House said in a statement last week.

The most serious allegations concerned the Phoenix, Ariz., VA Health Care System. Whistleblowers have charged that more than 40 veterans may have died awaiting treatment because of a secret waiting list that was designed to cover up delays in appointments and treatment.

Shinseki announced on May 1 that the director of the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care system and two other managers had been placed on administrative leave pending the results of the IG's investigation.

"These allegations, if true, are absolutely unacceptable and if the Inspector General's investigation substantiates these claims, swift and appropriate action will be taken," Shinseki said.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@monster.com.

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