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Report: VA's Shinseki says he's not quitting amid dying veterans controversy

By Eliott C. McLaughlin, CNN
updated 10:46 AM EDT, Fri May 23, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Veterans Affairs secretary says he will stay if the President still wants him
  • NEW: Shinseki tells Wall Street Journal that he needs to have better communication with veterans
  • White House: "President remains confident in Secretary Shinseki's ability to lead"
  • Month-long investigation shows veterans have died awaiting care at VA hospitals

(CNN) -- Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki told the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday that he will not resign in the wake of his department being accused of deadly delays in health care at some of its hospitals.

"I serve at the pleasure of the president," Shinseki told the newspaper when asked whether he would step down. "I signed on to make some changes, I have work to do."

Veterans groups call for resignation

The White House stood its ground when asked whether Shinseki will continue to lead the department.

In its daily briefing -- a question-and-answer session dominated by lengthy discussions on the conflict in Ukraine, abducted Nigerian schoolgirls and the White House climate change report -- press secretary Jay Carney offered only a few sentences when asked whether Shinseki's job was safe.

President Barack Obama takes seriously the allegations that veterans died waiting for care at the Phoenix VA hospital, Carney said, reiterating that the VA's inspector general is conducting an independent probe into the allegations.

"The President remains confident in Secretary Shinseki's ability to lead the department and take appropriate action," Carney said, repeating the White House response this week to two veterans groups' calls for Shinseki's ouster.

Shinseki said Tuesday that is "very sensitive to the allegations" coming from the Phoenix probe.

"I need to let the independent IG (inspector general) complete his investigation," he told the Journal.

Calls for his resignation

On Monday, the nation's largest veteran organization, the American Legion, and another veterans group, Concerned Veterans for America, called for Shinseki's resignation.

The calls came after months of CNN exclusive reporting on U.S. veterans who have died awaiting care at VA hospitals across the country, including in Phoenix.

"It's not something we do lightly. But we do so today because it is our responsibility as advocate for the men and women who have worn this nation's uniform," said Daniel M. Dellinger, national commander of the American Legion.

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Added Pete Hegseth, CEO of the Concerned Veterans of America, in a statement:

"We're proud to stand with The American Legion as they take this courageous and historic stand. As America's largest veterans organization, their moral authority on this issue is unimpeachable. We applaud their demands for accountability at the very top of the Department of Veterans Affairs."

Dozens of deaths

Shinseki told the Wall Street Journal that he would increase the communication among the leaders atop his department and veterans and address what appears to be a lack of faith in top management.

"If veteran service organizations are voicing concern about that, I will accept I have work to do to bolster confidence in their health care system," he said.

CNN has been reporting on delays in care and patient deaths at VA hospitals for the past six months, including at hospitals in South Carolina, Georgia and Texas.

After CNN's coverage, the VA acknowledged in April that 23 veterans had died as a result of delayed care in recent years, but sources tell CNN that number could be much higher.

In an exclusive report two weeks ago, CNN interviewed a retired VA doctor from Phoenix who charged that more than 40 American veterans have died waiting for care at the VA hospital there.

Throughout the network's reporting, CNN has submitted numerous requests for an interview with Shinseki, but in the six months that CNN has been reporting on the delays, Shinseki has yet to speak to CNN.

CNN is not alone in getting virtually no response from VA officials.

U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, issued this statement late Monday:

"For nearly a year, we have been pleading with top department leaders and President Obama to take immediate steps to stop the growing pattern of preventable veteran deaths and hold accountable any and all VA employees who have allowed patients to slip through the cracks.

"In response, we've received disturbing silence from the White House and one excuse after another from VA."

VA spokesman Drew Brookie's statement, released late Monday, read:

"The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) takes any allegations about patient care or employee misconduct very seriously. If the VA Office of Inspector General's investigation substantiates allegations of employee misconduct, swift and appropriate action will be taken. Veterans deserve to have full faith in their VA care.

"Under the leadership of Secretary Shinseki and his team, VA has made strong progress in recent years to better serve veterans both now and in the future. The secretary knows there is more work to do."

CNN's Scott Bronstein, Drew Griffin, Nelli Black and Steve Almasy contributed to this report.

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