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Thune, Noem: Shinseki resignation only a first step in VA reform

The resignation of U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki is just the first step needed to reform health care delivery to the nation's military veterans, South Dakota's Republican members of Congress said Friday.

After five years in the post, President Obama accepted Shinseki's resignation under mounting criticism over the administration of veterans' health care, including verified reports that VA staff altered records to show veterans' wait for medical care was shorter than reality.

"Secretary Shinseki's resignation is a necessary first step, but the VA crisis is bigger than any one person at the top. We must hold accountable all who played a role in this national embarrassment," said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., in a prepared statement. "In order to fix this systemic, widespread management failure, I'm calling for the VA inspector general to conduct a top-to-bottom nationwide investigation. Additionally, it is critical that actions are taken to improve the quality of care for our veterans by providing greater choice, while ensuring increased accountability and transparency at the VA."

On May 12, Thune introduced a bill that would direct the VA inspector general to expand its current limited review -- currently at 42 facilities -- to a nationwide investigation of veteran wait times.

Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., agreed with Thune's position.

"I believe the resignation of Secretary Shinseki was the right move, but this is just an initial step. I fear the full Inspector General investigation and ongoing audits will reveal even wider mismanagement and mistreatment of our veterans," Noem said in a prepared statement. "Everyone responsible must be held accountable and the Department of Veterans Affairs' handling of claims must be fundamentally changed to ensure no veteran is waiting weeks, months or even years for benefits.

"The women and men who have earned the distinguished title of Veteran must be treated with integrity, respect and urgency by the VA. Anything less is a break of faith with those who have sacrificed for all of us."

Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., did not take that stance, instead offering praise for areas where the VA found success during Shinseki's tenure.

"As a soldier, general, and public servant, Secretary Shinseki has dedicated his career to our nation and armed forces, and I thank him for his many years of service. Under his leadership, the VA has made tremendous strides in reducing veteran homelessness, expanding health care benefits to those impacted by Agent Orange exposure, and introducing new education benefits to thousands through the Post 9/11 GI Bill," Johnson said in a prepared statement. "I've enjoyed working with him over the past five years and appreciate his hard work as Secretary of Veterans Affairs."

Johnson said it's important that a new leader replace Shinseki soon.

"Our nation's veterans deserve the best care our nation can provide, and I urge President Obama to move quickly to find a new Secretary of Veterans Affairs. I'm hopeful that we can find solutions to the widespread problems facing the VA to make sure our veterans receive the care and treatment they have earned," Johnson said.

Thune used Friday's events to boost the VA facility in Hot Springs, which has been slated for closure.

"The same VA leaders who have called for the closure of the Hot Springs VA have now resigned in the wake of systemic, VA-wide failures to provide for our veterans. The administration should immediately halt the Environmental Impact Statement it has started for the closure of the Hot Springs VA," Thune said. "At this time, the VA must focus all of its resources on addressing the current crisis and ensuring that our veterans have the care they need and deserve."