By Will Dunham
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel said on Sunday the care given to U.S. veterans by the Department of Veterans Affairs is "not good enough" but offered support for Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, who has rejected calls to resign.
The American Legion, an influential veterans group, and some Republicans have called for Shinseki to step down following reports on whistleblowers' claims that up to 40 veterans died while waiting for appointments or specialist care at a VA hospital in Phoenix.
"I do support General Shinseki," Hagel told the ABC program "This Week," referring to the former four-star Army general who lost part of a foot to a land mine during the Vietnam War.
"But there's no margin here. If this (reported delays in care), in fact, or any variation of this occurred, all the way along the chain accountability is going to have to be upheld here because we can never let this kind of outrage, if all of this is true, stand in this country," the defense secretary added.
Asked about VA care for veterans that includes an average wait of five months, Hagel said, "No, it's not good enough, obviously. It has to be better." He also said the problems in the VA did not start under Shinseki bur rather "should have been looked at years and years ago."
Hagel is a decorated veteran who served during the Vietnam War as an enlisted man before becoming a Republican U.S. senator and later defense secretary under Democratic President Barack Obama.
The Veterans Affairs Committee in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives last week approved a subpoena ordering Shinseki and other top VA officials to produce all emails and written correspondence sent between April 9 and May 8 related to the disappearance or destruction of a secret patient wait list at the Phoenix VA hospital.
A senior House Republican on Sunday signaled impatience with Shinseki. Representative Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told the CBS program "Face the Nation" that Obama is "going to have to make a decision on Mr. Shinseki."
"If Mr. Shinseki can't come here and tell Congress how exactly he's going to change that culture there, I think we need to find somebody who's willing to go in and shake up the Veteran's Affairs so that their number one, two and third priority is taking care of the men and women who serve this country," Rogers said.
Shinseki's department provides patient care and federal benefits to veterans and their dependents. Veterans Affairs is the biggest U.S. healthcare system, including 1,700 hospitals, clinics and other facilities with nearly 9 million people enrolled.
(Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by Jim Loney and Paul Simao)