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The American Legion is demanding the immediate resignation of Veteran Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki and two other top VA leaders, citing a pattern of "poor oversight" and "failed leadership."
In a news conference Monday afternoon, Legion National Commander Dan Dellinger said Shinseki's tenure at VA has been plagued by "bureaucratic incompetence" and disheartening results for veterans.
The latest scandal — allegations that as many as 40 veterans may have died because of delayed care and secret waiting lists at the Phoenix VA health system —was the last straw for officials at the Legion.
"It's not something we do lightly," Dellinger said. "But we do so today because it is our responsibility as advocate for the men and women who have worn this nation's uniform."
The group is also calling for the resignation of Under Secretary for Health Robert Petzel and Under Secretary for Benefits Allison Hickey, saying new leadership is needed throughout the department.
The Legion, with more than 2.4 million members, is the nation's largest veterans organization and one of the most influential. In recent years, the group has praised Shinseki's work at VA, and a year ago even offered an angry defense of the secretary when a Time magazine article demanded his firing.
But Dellinger said recent problems have changed the perspective of Legion officials toward Shinseki. He cited multiple recent scandals involving preventable patient deaths, controversy over executive bonuses, and a concern among Legion members that VA services are on the decline.
"Our veterans need to know that the VA health-care system is a safe place where they can receive treatment and feel assured that patient safety is a top priority," he said. "Errors and lapses can occur in any system. But The American Legion expects when such errors and lapses are discovered, that they are dealt with swiftly and that the responsible parties are held accountable.
"This has not happened at the Department of Veterans Affairs. There needs to be a change, and that change needs to occur at the top."
The comments were the harshest criticism Shinseki has endured since early 2013, when the mounting veterans' disability claims backlog and problems with VA mental health care drew calls for top VA officials to resign.
On Friday, officials with the Veterans of Foreign Wars blasted "bureaucrats who are safely entrenched within the system" for a host of problems within VA, calling the Phoenix allegations "criminal malfeasance."
VFW asked for an independent review of the Pheonix situation separate from the VA Inspector General review that is already under way, calling that "akin to asking the fox to guard the hen house." But VFW stopped short of demanding Shinseki be removed as VA secretary.
Other advocacy groups, including Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, have offered similar critiques without the resignation demands. Officials at the conservative Concerned Veterans for America have been calling for Shinseki's ouster for months.
White House and VA officials offered no immediate response to the Legion announcement.
Shinseki, who took office in January 2009, is the longest serving secretary in VA history and the longest serving leader of federal veterans programs since the end of the Vietnam War. He is also among the longest serving members of President Obama's Cabinet.