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Top VA health official steps down over care scandals

Dr. Robert Petzel, Undersecretary for Health at the Department of Veterans Affairs, answers a question about lifelong electronic medical records for servicemembers at a joint Congressional hearing on July 10, 2013 in Washington, D.C.

WASHINGTON — Dr. Robert Petzel, Undersecretary for Health in the Department of Veterans Affairs, has resigned amid a firestorm over allegations of fraudulent wait lists for care and a host of other problems at the VA.

According to a statement put out by the VA, Secretary Eric K. Shinseki said the following:

“Today, I accepted the resignation of Dr. Robert Petzel, Under Secretary for Health in the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“As we know from the veteran community, most veterans are satisfied with the quality of their VA health care, but we must do more to improve timely access to that care.

“I am committed to strengthening veterans’ trust and confidence in their VA healthcare system. I thank Dr. Petzel for his four decades of service to veterans.”

Petzel, who was the top health official at the department, oversaw an annual medical care budget of over $54 billion, along with 277,000 staff members, according to his official VA biography. The Veterans Health Administration operates more than 1,700 healthcare locations, including hospitals, clinics, nursing homes and counseling centers. More than 8 million veterans are enrolled in the system, according to VA.

But Petzel had announced in September that he would retire this year, perhaps blunting the effect of this announcement.

The VA said at the time that Petzel would be retiring “as planned, following a four-year tenure,” but would remain in the job until the Senate confirms a successor.

The White House announced May 1 that it intended to nominate Jeffrey Murawsky, director of the VA’s Illinois-based Great Lakes Health Care System, as the new undersecretary for health.

“Today’s announcement from VA regarding Undersecretary for Health Robert Petzel’s ‘resignation’ is the pinnacle of disingenuous political doublespeak,” according to a statement from Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. “Petzel was already scheduled to retire in 2014 and President Obama has already announced his intention to nominate Petzel’s replacement, so characterizing this as a ‘resignation’ just doesn’t pass the smell test. ... the VA has resorted to what it does best: splitting semantic hairs to create the illusion of accountability and progress. After yesterday’s out-of-touch performance from Sec. Shinseki, I was disappointed. Today, I am even more disillusioned.”

On Thursday, senators on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee grilled Shinseki and Petzel, saying about 50 federal reports in recent years warned of problems long before a health care scandal involving allegedly falsified records in at least 10 states. In Arizona, whistleblower reports surfaced in late April that a Phoenix VA hospital kept a secret list concealing long waits for health treatment while 40 veterans died.

At the hearing, Petzel called those scheduling methods “intolerable.” But he told senators he wasn’t sure whether VA employees who engage in such practices should be fired or disciplined in some other way.

And there are other problems; The family of a veteran who died while being treated for lung cancer and after contracting Legionnaire’s disease filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Veterans Affairs Pittsburgh Healthcare System.

According to the lawsuit, Clark E. Compston, a Marine Corps veteran who died Nov. 14, 2011, was being treated at the VA hospital in Pittsburgh when he was exposed to Legionnaire’s disease on or about Sept. 28, 2011.

Miller referenced a number of problems at VA hospitals during a September hearing and noted that Petzel “downplayed the problems by referring to them as ‘kerfuffles.’”

Earlier this year, Miller introduced the VA Management Accountability Act of 2014, legislation that would give Shinseki and future VA secretaries authority to fire or demote Senior Executive Service or equivalent employees based on performance.

The American Legion had demanded the resignation of Shinseki amid allegations that medical treatment delays have caused the deaths of scores of veterans, along with Petzel and Allison Hickey, another top lieutenant.

Republican Rep. Jerry Moran of Kansas, who last week called for Shinseki’s resignation, said in a Friday news release that Petzel wasn’t the only one who should be held accountable.

“It is important to note that Undersecretary Petzel was the only VA witness at the Senate VA Committee hearing who admitted knowledge of IG reports — he should not shoulder the blame for VA’s failures,” Moran said. “Rather than the VA focusing on damage control, action should be taken immediately to change the bureaucratic culture of mediocrity at the VA and ensure the highest quality and most timely care for our nation’s heroes.”

Stars and Stripes reporter Chris Carroll contributed to this report.

dickson.pat@stripes.com
Twitter: @stripesDCchief

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