WASHINGTON — In the end, even Eric Shinseki knew he had to go, President Barack Obama said Friday in announcing the resignation of his only Veterans Affairs secretary over a growing scandal involving sometimes deadly waits for care at VA hospitals.
Obama went before reporters shortly after meeting with Shinseki at the White House and said the retired Army general told him that “the VA needs new leadership” to address the widespread problems chronicled in new reports this week, adding that Shinseki “does not want to be a distraction” to fixing the situation.
“That was Ric’s judgment on behalf of his fellow veterans, and I agree. We don’t have time for distractions. We need to fix the problem,” Obama said.
Calls for Shinseki’s resignation snowballed in recent days from across the political spectrum — Republicans and Democrats, as well as veterans’ advocacy groups — because of the misconduct that gained prominence after problems at VA facilities were reported in November.
Before meeting Obama, Shinseki announced a series of steps intended to address the VA problems, including the removal of senior leaders at the Phoenix VA hospital and elimination of performance awards for VA leaders in 2014.
He also apologized to veterans and Congress, but declared: “This situation can be fixed.”
Shinseki then went to the White House to present Obama with findings from his internal audit of what was happening in the VA system, a document that effectively ended his job. He left after the meeting without comment.
The new report found indications that many of the audited facilities had “questionable scheduling practices” that signaled a “systemic lack of integrity” within some VA health facilities.
In announcing Shinseki’s resignation, Obama said there was “a need for a change in culture” at veterans hospitals “and perhaps the VA as a whole” to make sure that problems and “bad news” don’t get covered up, but get reported and fixed.
He praised Shinseki’s service as a soldier “who left part of himself on the battlefield,” and a VA leader who helped increase the budget and services, whittle down a backlog of benefits claims and help homeless veterans.
However, the findings of the internal VA report as well as a previous preliminary report by the VA inspector general revealed systemic problems that Obama called “totally unacceptable.”
He named a Shinseki deputy, Sloan Gibson, to temporarily assume the VA leadership until a new secretary gets appointed.
Political leaders applauded the resignation Friday, but said new leadership must resolve the VA problems.
“The denial of care to our veterans is a national disgrace, and it’s fitting that the person who oversees the Department of Veterans Affairs has accepted responsibility for this growing scandal and resigned,” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said in a statement.
“Secretary Shinseki was a great soldier who served our nation with honor and distinction in the United States Army,” said Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Aurora. “But as the VA secretary, he failed to lead. I urge the President to appoint a proven leader to take charge of the VA who will end the culture of corruption and bureaucratic incompetence that is hurting our veterans. History will judge this president harshly if he fails to confront this great failure with decisiveness and vision.”
“Eric Shinseki served our country honorably as a combat soldier, general, and cabinet secretary,” said Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Denver. “As more information about systemic problems within the Veterans Health Administration has come to light, it has become clear that fundamental reforms are needed, starting with new leadership. Congress must do its part to solve these problems, providing the resources needed to handle expanding responsibilities at the VA as well as genuine oversight of the department’s operations. Secretary Shinseki’s resignation will not solve any problems unless this change in leadership is coupled with a commitment to reform from everyone involved. Our veterans deserve nothing less.”
In an interview taped Thursday and broadcast Friday on ABC, Obama promised “a serious conversation” with Shinseki “to see whether he thinks that he is prepared and has the capacity to take on the job of fixing it because I don’t want any veteran to not be getting the kind of services they deserve.”
Facing mounting calls to resign, Shinseki on Friday spoke to representatives of the people particularly vulnerable to his agency’s medical failings. He was the featured speaker at the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans’ annual conference in Washington.
Some veterans have died during long delays in medical care, and it has recently come to light that at least one hospital tied employee bonuses to patient wait times.
Shinseki received a standing ovation at the beginning and end of his appearance. After touting improvements in delivery of services to homeless veterans, Shinseki said at the end that he wanted to talk about “the elephant in the room.”
The secretary said he was shocked by the inspector general’s report, released Wednesday, on failings in the VA system, especially the prevalence of wait lists for veterans needing medical care.
“That breach of integrity is irresponsible, it is indefensible and unacceptable to me,” he said. “I said when this situation began weeks to months ago and I thought the problem was limited and isolated because I believed that. I no longer believe that. It is systemic.”
Shinseki, who has been VA chief for five years, said he was misled by others.
“I was too trusting of some, and I accepted as accurate reports that I now know to have been misleading with regard to patient wait times,” he said. “I can’t explain the lack of integrity among some of the leaders of our health care facilities. This is something I rarely encounter during 38 years in uniform and so I will not defend it because it’s indefensible, but I can take responsibility for it and I do.”
Among other changes announced: eliminating wait times as a way to evaluate supervisors’ performance, accelerating administration of care to veterans and asking Congress to fill VA leadership vacancies quickly.
In the latest accusation against the agency, U.S. Reps. Mike Doyle and Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania issued a statement saying 700 veterans had been placed on a primary care waiting list for doctor appointments at the Pittsburgh VA center, with some waiting since 2012.
Late Thursday, a ranking Democratic congressman on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee joined colleagues from both sides of the aisle to demand Shinseki throw in the towel.
“Democrats and Republicans alike, in tandem with our Veteran Service Organizations and the millions of Americans who have served our nation, all want to get to the bottom of what exactly is broken with the VA system, and what we can do to fix it,” Rep. Mike Michaud of Maine said in a statement.
But Shinseki has become the focal point, and it is time for him to go, so progress can be made, he said.
“The systemic failures in our VA system are inexcusable and must be fixed immediately so that this never happens again,” he said.