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Hagel softens words of support for VA secretary

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Thursday drew back on his public support of Veterans Administration Secretary Eric Shinseki, telling reporters he will leave decisions on the VA leader’s future to others.

Asked if Shinseki is the right person to fix the VA’s troubles, Hagel said he thinks the secretary understands the depth of the problem and what veterans deserve in terms of their health care. But he stopped short of making the kinds of supportive statements he had been offering for Shinseki in previous days.

In earlier comments Hagel brushed off suggestions that Shinseki be fired, saying such talk was premature – something he did not say Thursday as he spoke to reporters traveling with him to a national security conference in Singapore.

“This has to get fixed and this is as high a priority as this country has – taking care of its veterans,” Hagel said. “I’m not going to get into Gen. Shinseki’s future. I’ll leave that to others.”

A senior official said the Pentagon chief, who was wounded during the Vietnam War, has tempered his thinking on the issue. The official said Hagel had grown increasingly disturbed by the inspector general’s report suggesting that treatment delays and efforts to falsify records to hide the problems were broader and more systemic than initially reported. The official was not authorized to discuss private discussion by name and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Hagel has ordered a 90-day review of health care system serving the active military. In a meeting this week with senior Pentagon leaders and the military service secretaries, he said that he wants them to determine if similar delays in care are happening at those facilities.

The inspector general’s office said 26 VA facilities are being investigated nationwide, including a Phoenix hospital facing allegations that 40 people died while waiting for treatment and that staff kept a secret list of patients to hide delays in care.

Hagel is on a 12-day trip that includes a stop in Afghanistan, a NATO meeting in Brussels and time in Singapore, Romania and France.