By Susan Cornwell and David Lawder
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Republicans stepped up their attacks on the Obama administration over a deepening Veterans Affairs healthcare delay scandal on Thursday, but House Speaker John Boehner again declined to join a growing list of lawmakers calling for VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign.
At a news briefing, Boehner said he was not still convinced that Shinseki’s ouster would solve the VA’s problems. Instead, he sought to keep the pressure on President Barack Obama for VA scheduling abuses that covered up monthslong delays for veterans’ medical care appointments.
“I’m going to continue to reserve judgment on General Shinseki,” Boehner said. “The question I ask myself is, is him resigning going to get us to the bottom of the problem, is it going to help us find out what is really going on? The answer is no.”
On Wednesday, the Department of Veterans Affairs’ inspector general confirmed “systemic” and widespread manipulation of data that understated appointment waiting times, prompting both Democratic and Republican lawmakers to call for Shinseki to quit.
In an interim report on an investigation into secret waiting lists at VA facilities in Phoenix, the inspector general said it was now probing appointment data manipulation at 42 VA locations nationwide.
Asked who should replace Shinseki, Boehner said the key priority was getting to the bottom of the problems at the VA.
“The real issue here is the president is the one who should be held accountable,” Boehner said.
The Ohio Republican added that it was “rather shocking” that Obama has professed no knowledge of the scandal when the VA inspector general and the Government Accountability Office have flagged scheduling problems at the VA for years.
The scandal exploded earlier this month after VA doctors in Phoenix came forward with allegations that some 40 veterans had died while waiting months for primary-care appointments.
The inspector general’s report confirmed that 1,700 veterans were being held on a secret waiting list that allowed Phoenix VA officials to report much shorter waiting times, data that was used in bonus award calculations.
Republican Representative Peter King said Boehner told House Republicans in a closed-door meeting that he was concerned that simply replacing Shinseki might give the impression that the VA’s problems were solved and it “may end the whole situation too quickly.”
Republican lawmakers have been formulating strategy to use the VA troubles in their re-election campaigns for November, portraying them as another example of Obama administration mismanagement rivaling the botched launch of health insurance reforms.
The chorus of lawmakers calling for Shinseki to leave grew on Thursday with Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida joining the fray, saying that the inspector general’s report “not only confirmed our worst fears about rampant mismanagement and institutional neglect at the VA, it also revealed the problem is even worse than we thought.”
Rubio is sponsoring a bill that would be identical to House-passed legislation that would give the VA secretary more authority to fire or demote executives for poor performance.
(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)