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Politics

Michaud Criticized after Shinseki Resigns

At around midday today, President Barack Obama announced the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki. About 12 hours earlier, U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud of Maine's 2nd District had joined other lawmakers in calling for Shinseki's departure, as an internal report indicated problems at the nation's VA hospitals were even more widespread than previously thought. Now Michaud's gubernatorial opponents in Maine say he has failed the state's veterans.

Following a private conference with Shinseki, the president spoke with reporters at the White House.

"A few minutes ago, Secretary Shinseki offered me his own resignation," President Obama said. "With considerable regret, I accepted."

With the departure of the retired four-star Army general, Democrats and Republicans in Congress hope that a new era of reform can be instituted to reverse what has been referred to as the systemic failure of the nation's VA hospitals to adequately respond to veterans health care issues. U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine's 1st District says the scope of the problems has spiraled beyond Shinseki's ability to resolve them.

"With all the findings that have come out about the cover-ups of outrageously long wait times at VA hospitals around the country, it's clear that a change in senior leadership was necessary," Pingree said. "Secretary Shinseki had become a distraction and it is time for him to step down."

The problems at the VA hospitals have been well documented over the last several weeks following whistleblower complaints that alleged secret waiting lists were drawn up at a Phoenix hospital to minimize the extent of the delays in service to veterans. It has been alleged that as many as 40 patients may have died while waiting to see a doctor. Efforts by members of the House Veterans Services Committee to obtain specific information from ranking VA officials has proven to be a frustrating experience, leading Michaud -- the lead Democrat on the committee -- to join other lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in calling for Shinseki's resignation. Relieved after hearing that the secretary was stepping down, Michaud cautioned that the change at the top was only the first step toward correcting a range of systemic failures in the sprawling VA bureaucracy that serves 6.5 million veterans annually.

"That the secretary has and the president has accepted his resignation doesn't solve the problems at the VA -- these are systemic problems," Michaud said.

But what the resignation will do, Michaud says, is allow Shinseki to clear out some of VA's top administrators who have allowed problems at the administration to fester for years.

"I think the secretary made it clear today that he's going to take decisive action before he renders his resignation, hopefully the president, allows him to do so," Michaud said. "The secretary is going to remove the Phoenix VA Medical Center's senior leadership; they're contacting the 1,700 veterans in Phoenix who are waiting for appointments. He's eliminating the VHA executive bonus awards for 2014."

Here in Maine, where Michaud generally received high marks from veterans, the Togus VA hospital has not been among those federal facilities that have turned up on the list of failing hospitals. But Michaud is also engaged in hotly contested three-way race for the Blaine House and Republican Gov. Paul LePage has been attacking Michaud for failing to respond to the national VA crisis.

"The Veterans Affairs scandal is disappointing to say the least, I have urged the federal government to fix these systemic problems," LePage said. "We need leadership in Washington that is helping our veterans, not hindering their support services."

Shortly after Shinseki's resignation, LePage issued a press release from the governor's office, rather than his campaign, asserting that Michaud should have known about the problems at the hospitals nine years ago and said, "it is unconscionable that Mike Michaud waited until an election year before he finally took some action."

Michaud's other gubernatorial opponent, independent Eliot Cutler, says Michaud can't claim to be an advocate for veteran services while failing to respond to the national crisis involving VA hospitals.

"So the question for Mr. Michaud is, what has he done about it?" said Cutler. "What kind of accomplishments can he point to to fix the problem? Leadership and effectiveness is what the job he is running for is all about and I think Maine people are asking themselves over and over again: 'Where was Mike?'"

Michaud says his rivals' statements reflect a lack of knowledge regarding VA issues.

"That shows that my opponents are unaware of the work that we've been doing and do not know the VA system," Michaud said. "The fact that they are using this as a political football is just disgusting and outrageous."

Michaud points to his record of submitting more than 500 bills in support of veterans services.