Veterans Affair Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned his post Friday morning. President Obama says it's now time to 'fix the problem.' VPC
WASHINGTON — President Obama said Friday that he has accepted the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki in the wake of major problems within the health care system for veterans.
Obama — who made the announcement minutes after meeting with Shinseki — said he regretted accepting the resignation, but "the VA needs new leadership" and he agreed with the secretary's own assessment that he has become too much of a distraction.
"We don't have time for distractions," Obama said. "We need to fix the problem."
Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson will take temporary charge of the department, Obama said, adding that he will nominate a new permanent secretary soon.
Obama began what he called a "serious conversation" with Shinseki on Friday just hours after the VA secretary apologized to all veterans and the nation for scandal involving the systemic delay of health care to veterans.
While accepting Shinseki's resignation, Obama went out of his way to praise the retired four-star general.
"He is a very good man," Obama said. "He's been an outstanding soldier. He's a good person who's done exemplary work."
Obama himself bears responsibility, said Republican Party chairman Reince Priebus, adding that "it's past time for the president to step up and fix this mess" at the VA.
"Until then," Priebus said, "personnel changes aren't an answer to the problem for our veterans. It's just musical chairs."
After a speech Friday morning, Shinseki vowed to fire leaders at a Phoenix VA hospital where a VA inspector general investigation showed that 1,700 veterans were removed from any official list and kept waiting for appointments, some for up to six months or longer.
STATEMENT: Shinseki's statement on VA problems
"We now know that VA has a systemic, totally unacceptable lack of integrity within some of our veteran health facilities," Shinseki said. "The breach of trust involved the tracking of patient wait times for appointments."
He said he took full responsibility for the scandal, but far from indicating he would step down, the VA chief talked about working "in the days ahead" to fix the troubled agency.
Investigators linked these delays with efforts by hospital personnel, at Phoenix and other VA medical facilities. to improve their performance records on wait times. Although Shinseki did not name the Phoenix officials he is moving to fire, he has placed three on administrative leave including hospital director Sharon Helman and associate director Lance Robinson.
"We will use all authority at our disposal to enforce accountability among senior leaders who are found to have instigated, tolerated dishonorable or irresponsible scheduling practices at VA health care facilities," Shinseki said.
In remarks Friday, Shinseki said he was shocked by widespread evidence of a loss in integrity, admitted that he failed to see this was happening and said he would provide no bonuses to any medical directors in the 150-hospital system this year.
A few hours before Obama accepted Shinseki's resignation, the 71-year-old secretary — twice wounded and three times awarded a Bronze Star for valor in Vietnam — had received a standing ovation as he entered a conference in Washington sponsored by homeless veteran advocates.
The warm reception at the National Coalition of Homeless Veterans conference Friday morning offered a receptive forum for Shinseki to cite some of his proudest accomplishments and at least for moment, bask in some adulation.
He talked about his success in reducing veteran homeless by 24% and his expansion of veteran courts across the country where former service members facing charges can be diverted to treatment, rather than incarceration. He proudly spoke of an initiative to reduce the use of habit-forming painkiller drugs dispensed to veterans, dramatically cutting reliance on addictive narcotics.
Many of service groups that all but reluctantly accepted his decision to quit admitted to be conflicted about Shinseki because so much of what he accomplished in his five years was exactly what many of them had sought — reducing a backlog of pending compensation claims by half, expanding benefits to victims of Agent Orange exposure during Vietnam, making it easier for sufferers of PTSD to receive benefits, encouraging some two million veterans in recent years to sign up for health care and, after some initial difficulties', processing education benefits for a million new veterans.
"Shinseki has been a staunch ally of veterans seeking to better themselves and their families through higher education," the Student Veterans of America organization said in reactionto his resignation. "We share our great thanks to Secretary Shinseki for his honorable service."
About the wait-time scandal, Shinseki promised to hold accountable any medical officials found to have engaged in the same behavior at VA hospitals and clinics across the country. The IG report released Wednesday said 42 VA medical facilities are currently under investigation for delaying care and falsifying patient appointment records. In addition, Shinseki said that his own system-wide internal audit has found a similar pattern of lying about wait times.
"I can't explain the lack of integrity among some of the leaders of our health care facilities. This is something I rarely encountered during 38 years in uniform. And so I will not defend it because it is indefensible," Shinseki said.