WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Friday accepted the resignation of Veteran Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki.
The move comes two days after the inspector general found VA officials throughout the system had been aware of records falsified to hide long delays before veterans could receive care.
Earlier Friday, Shinseki said senior leadership at the Phoenix VA will be fired and executive pay bonuses frozen as punishment for systemic scheduling abuses in the nationwide health care system.
The moves were among a series of initiatives, also including the removal of wait times in employee evaluations and support of legislation that removes administrative roadblocks to firing executives, unveiled by Shinseki during a rare public appearance amid increasing calls for his resignation.
Congress has called for firings and bold moves by VA leadership. On Friday, Shinseki offered an apology for what he called a “systemic totally unacceptable lack of integrity” in his department.
“I can’t explain the lack of integrity among some of the leaders of our health care facilities. This is something I rarely encountered in 38 years in uniform,” Shinseki said. “So, I will not defend it because it is indefensible. But I can take responsibility for it, and I do.”
The embattled secretary, a four-star general who was wounded in Vietnam and appointed by the Obama Administration to head the VA in 2009, said he was misled by staff who told him scheduling abuses were isolated to Phoenix.
“I no longer believe it. It is systemic,” said Shinseki, who spoke at a veteran homelessness conference. “I was too trusting of some.”
The problems in Phoenix came to light in April after whistleblowers revealed to media outlets that hospital staff at the VA hospital there were using secret, off-the-books waiting lists to hide the long waits that veterans seeking care were experiencing. The scheme was an effort to boost job performance evaluations, which affected employee awards and salary increases. Dozens of veterans reportedly died while awaiting care. The shocking revelations led VA to launch a wide-ranging probe to see if the problem was more widespread.
During its investigation, the IG discovered that 1,700 veterans — 54 percent — seeking primary care in Phoenix were not added to official electronic waiting lists until shortly before they could be seen by medical staff. It also found that 84 percent of veterans surveyed waited on average 115 days for their first primary care appointment — far longer than the 14 days required by a recently enacted VA rule, which was meant to improve access to care and reduce wait times. The probe revealed that the deceptive scheduling practice was occurring at other VA facilities across the country.
Last week, White House spokesman Jay Carney said that Obama still had “confidence” in Shinseki’s leadership, despite the scandal.
But following the release Wednesday of the damning IG report, a growing chorus of lawmakers on Capitol Hill called for Shinseki to step down.
Shinseki has defended his record as head of the VA, saying he was kept in the dark about the VA’s practices until the scandal broke.
“It is alarming that Secretary Shinseki either wasn’t aware of these systemic problems, or wasn’t forthcoming in his communications with Congress about them. Either way, it is clear to me that new leadership is needed at the VA,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said in a press release after the report was released.
The American Legion called on him to resign, although most major veterans’ service organizations have stood by Shinseki following the embarrassing disclosures. A poll conducted by CBS News last week before the IG report was released, suggested 42 percent of veterans believed he should resign.
On Thursday, as the political tide turned against Shinseki, Carney dodged reporters’ questions about whether Obama still had confidence in the VA chief. On Friday, the ax came down, despite Shinseki indicating earlier in the day that he wanted to stay on as head of the department.
Shinseki took over the VA in 2009 at the beginning of the Obama administration, following a 38-year career as an Army officer. Shinseki is a Vietnam combat veteran who had to have part of his foot amputated after he stepped on a land mine. Shinseki retired from the military in 2003 as a four-star general after serving as Army Chief of Staff — the service’s top position.
Obama praised Shinseki’s career of public service, including his leadership of the VA.
“Under his leadership, we have seen more progress on more fronts at the VA and a bigger investment in the VA than just about any other VA secretary,” Obama said.
He noted that under Shinseki’s watch, the VA enrolled 2 million new veterans in health care; provided disability pay to Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange; made it easier for veterans with post-traumatic stress, mental health issues and traumatic brain injury to get treatment; helped cut veteran homelessness by 24 percent; and made sure that there were facilities for women veterans to receive the specialized services that they needed.
Sloan Gibson, who was serving as deputy secretary of the VA, has been named interim secretary. Gibson graduated from West Point and served as an infantry officer. Before joining the VA, he was president and CEO of the USO. Obama acknowledged that political pressure influenced his decision to replace Shinseki.
“We occupy not just an environment that calls for management fixes. We’ve also got to deal with Congress and [the press]. And I think it’s Ric’s judgment that he could not carry out the next stages of reform without being a distraction himself … My assessment was, unfortunately, that he was right,” Obama said during a press conference when he announced the resignation.
“We don’t have time for distractions,” Obama said. “We need to fix the problem.”