WASHINGTON (AP) — Four prominent veterans groups are exchanging accusations with Republican Sen. Richard Burr after he criticized the groups for declining to embrace his call for Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign amid reports of treatment delays and falsified records at VA hospitals.
In an "open letter to America's veterans" timed for the Memorial Day weekend, Burr chastised the service organizations for refusing to call for Shinseki's dismissal, despite a call by the American Legion for Shinseki to step down following allegations that up to 40 veterans may have died while waiting for treatment at a Phoenix VA hospital.
The North Carolina Republican said their reluctance to confront Shinseki showed the groups are "more interested in defending the status quo within VA (and) protecting their relationships within the agency" than in improving care for veterans.
The inspector general at the Veterans Affairs Department says 26 VA facilities nationwide are under investigation, including the Phoenix hospital at the center of allegations about treatment delays and secret waiting lists intended to hide delays in care.
The allegations have raised fresh concerns about the Obama administration's management of a department that has been struggling to keep up with the influx of veterans returning home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as Vietnam veterans needing more care as they age.
On Tuesday, the VA released additional details of a new plan to improve patient care and allow veterans to seek care from private hospitals and clinics. The VA said its health care facilities are reviewing clinic capacity to maximize medical appointments, extending clinic hours on nights and weekends, and expanding overtime pay available to health care providers.
Under the new guidelines, announced Saturday by Shinseki, VA facilities will make at least three attempts to contact any veteran seeking VA care for the first time, or who are new to a particular clinic, if their appointment is at least 30 days away. The goal is to move up the appointment as soon as possible, either at a VA site or private clinic, officials said.
In addition, VA facilities are reviewing cancellations and available appointments on a continual basis and are contacting veterans currently on an electronic waiting list to offer appointments.
Burr, the senior Republican on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said the panel's May 15 hearing made it clear to him that the veteran organizations' Washington staffs have "ignored the constant VA problems expressed by their members and (are) more interested in their own livelihoods and Washington connections than they are to the needs of their own members."
The senator did not name specific groups, but four organizations — the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans, Paralyzed Veterans of America and Vietnam Veterans of America — all denounced his remarks in unusually harsh terms. All four groups testified at the May 15 hearing, as did the 2.4 million-member American Legion, the largest of the veterans service organizations. The American Legion called for Shinseki's resignation the week before the hearing.
The VFW, the nation's second-largest veterans group with 1.9 million members, called Burr's allegations "a monumental cheap shot" that was "ugly and mean-spirited and profoundly wrong."
William Thien, the VFW's commander-in-chief, and John Hamilton, the group's adjutant general, said Burr should be ashamed of himself for launching what they called "one of the most dishonorable and grossly inappropriate acts that we've witnessed in more than 40 years of involvement with the veteran community."
Other groups jumped in quickly. The Disabled American Veterans said its members were "outraged" that Burr chose Memorial Day weekend — "a sacred time to remember and honor those who paid the ultimate sacrifice for our nation — to attack the patriotism of leaders of most of the nation's leading veterans service organizations."
Burr may believe "that all of VA's problems and challenges can be overcome by replacing one secretary, but the plain facts and simple logic indicate otherwise," Joseph Johnston, the DAV's national commander, said in a statement.
Burr and the American Legion have been joined by several Republican lawmakers as well as by a few Democratic House members and Senate candidates in saying Shinseki should resign or be fired. A number of prominent Republicans, including House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller of Florida and Arizona Sen. John McCain, have not suggested Shinseki should step down.
"Regrettably, Sen. Burr shows no interest in pursuing serious policy solutions, preferring instead to launch cheap political attacks on the integrity of leaders of veterans organizations that do not agree with him," the DAV's Johnston said.
Paralyzed Veterans of America said Burr represents "the worst of politics in this country" and said his letter "clearly displays why the vast majority of the American public puts no faith in their elected officials to do what is right for this country."
The Vietnam veterans group called Burr's statement "blatantly false" and said they were unlikely to resolve any of the VA's problems.
Burr was unbowed. In statement Tuesday, he said the response by the veterans groups "seems to prove my point: Their national leadership(s) are far more outraged by my words than they have been about the VA scandal or Secretary Shinseki's mismanagement of the agency. How many (investigative) reports does it take to spur outrage and prompt action?"
Follow Matthew Daly: https://twitter.com/MatthewDalyWDC