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Shinseki is out, but Phoenix VA delays leave a haunted trail for some

Shinseki is out, but Phoenix VA delays leave a haunted trail for some
Navy veteran Edward Laird waited two years trying to get an appointment at the VA hospital in Phoenix after a biopsy was ordered for two blemishes on his nose. They turned out to be cancerous, and half his nose had to be cut away. (Courtesy of Edward Laird)

In Arizona, where allegations first surfaced of secret waiting lists at the Phoenix VA and ultimately led to Friday's resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki, reaction was swift and pointed.

Shortly after President Obama accepted Shinseki's offer to step down, veterans and their relatives who had experiences with the Phoenix facility said that they expected the departure but that the agency had a long way to go.

Sally Barnes-Breen, whose father-in-law died while waiting for a follow-up appointment, said Shinseki's resignation was not enough.

"People are still dying," she said from her home in San Tan Valley, Ariz.

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Her father-in-law, Thomas Breen, 71, a Navy veteran with a history of bladder cancer, waited two months last fall for a follow-up appointment at the Phoenix VA after discovering blood in his urine. His family finally took him to a private hospital, where he was told he had terminal bladder cancer. He died Nov. 30.

Barnes-Breen said her father-in-law was one of at least 40 veterans who died while waiting for service at that VA medical center, according to hospital employees as well as several members of Congress who have looked into allegations of staff misconduct involving waiting lists.

That facility is also the focus of a federal Justice Department investigation over secret waiting lists that allegedly were used to conceal the extent of delayed patient appointments.

Barnes-Breen said federal officials need to clean house and hold VA officials accountable for what she called criminal acts.

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About half an hour north of the Phoenix VA, Edward Laird responded to Friday's news with scorn.

The 76-year-old Navy veteran, who had more than half his nose cut away because of what he described as years of delayed care at the Phoenix VA, said Shinseki's resignation was a step in the right direction.

"He didn't do nothing," Laird said. "He should have stood up and taken a few bullets for us."

Laird said he'd been watching the news all morning from his home in New River, Ariz. He called Shinseki, a retired four-star general, "collateral damage."

"They're not out of the woods yet," he said of VA officials. "You've got an organization that has too many patients."

Barnes-Breen summed it up by pointing out her father-in-law refused to go anywhere else for his care.

"He believed and trusted the VA," she said.

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