WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama announced the resignation Friday of the head of the Department of Veterans Affairs because of widespread problems plaguing the health care system for military veterans.
Obama said he accepted Eric Shinseki’s resignation with “considerable regret” during a White House meeting, just two days after a scathing internal report found broad and deep-seated problems in the sprawling health care system, which is struggling to keep up with the number of vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Shinseki, a retired four-star general who had overseen Veterans Affairs since the start of Obama’s presidency, had faced mounting calls to step down from congressional Republicans and Democrats.
The controversy has ballooned into a top Washington issue since allegations surfaced that as many as 40 veterans may have died while awaiting care at the health care system in Phoenix, Arizona.
But it is difficult to predict how significant the political fallout will be or how it could affect November’s congressional elections. Although lawmakers from both parties have called for Shinseki’s resignation, each side has moved cautiously, sensitive about being seen as exploiting the plight of veterans for political gain. So far, the political moves have been low-budget, mass telephone calls, web-based attacks and television commercials that will air relatively infrequently. They’re likely to stay that way until it becomes clear how long-lasting the furor is.
In a speech earlier Friday, Shinseki said that the findings of the report were “totally unacceptable” and a “breach of trust” that he found irresponsible and indefensible. He announced a series of steps, including the ouster of senior officials at the troubled Phoenix health care facility, the initial focus on the investigation.
He concurred with the report’s conclusion that the problems extended throughout the 1,700 health care facilities nationwide, and said that “I was too trusting of some” in the VA system.
“I can’t explain the lack of integrity,” he told a homeless veterans group Friday. “I will not defend it because it is not defensible.”
Obama had been under pressure to fire Shinseki from Republicans and politically vulnerable Democrats.
Obama said Shinseki had served with honor, but the Veterans Affairs secretary told him the agency needs new leadership and he doesn’t want to be a distraction. “I agree. We don’t have time for distractions. We need to fix the problem,” Obama said.
The president named Sloan D. Gibson, currently the deputy VA secretary, to run the department on an interim basis while he searches for another secretary.
The VA has a goal of trying to give patients an appointment within 14 days of when they first seek care. Treatment delays — and irregularities in recording patient waiting times — have been documented in numerous reports from government and outside organizations for years and have been well-known to VA officials, member of Congress and veteran service organizations.
But the controversy now swirling around the VA stems from allegations that employees were keeping a secret waiting list at the Phoenix hospital. A preliminary VA inspector general probe into the allegations found systemic falsification of appointment records at Phoenix and other locations but has not made a determination on whether any deaths are related to the delays.
It is too early for a full accounting of any misbehavior at the department, which oversees pensions, education, health care and other benefits for veterans and their families.
The aging network of hospitals and clinics — the VA opened its first new medical center in 17 years in 2012 — is one of the world’s largest integrated health care systems.
The VA system saw 5.5 million patients in 2008; that grew to 6.5 million in 2012-2013.
The VA estimates the U.S. has more than 21 million veterans, men and women who fought in World War II through the war on terror. The largest group is Vietnam War veterans, who need more care as they age.
Associated Press writers Julie Pace, Pauline Jelinek and David Espo contributed to this story.