WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama announced the resignation Friday of the head of the Department of Veterans Affairs amid a mushrooming scandal over appointment delays, falsified-record keeping and other problems plaguing the strained health care system for the country’s former warriors.
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 as the controversy ballooned into a top Washington issue. In the 36 hours that followed the findings Wednesday, Democrats in tough congressional re-election races this November joined Republicans in clamoring for Shinseki’s resignation.
Obama said Shinseki, a Vietnam War veteran, 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.
Republicans in Congress said Shinseki’s resignation alone wasn’t enough to solve problems at an agency that has been struggling to keep up with a huge increase in demand for its services. About 9 million veterans are now enrolled in the health care system, roughly 1 million more than only six years ago. The influx comes from returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, aging Vietnam War vets who now have more health problems, a move by Congress to expand the number of those eligible for care and the migration of veterans to the VA during the last recession after they lost their jobs.
Lawmakers on both sides have moved cautiously, sensitive about being seen as exploiting the plight of veterans for political gain. Still, Shinseki’s departure seemed unlikely to end an election-year political struggle between the parties.
The Republican leader of the House, John Boehner, said the resignation “does not absolve the president of his responsibility to step in and make things right for our veterans.” He and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell called on Democrats to join them in legislation “that would help to fix this system that has so failed our veterans.”
In their report, agency investigators said that 1,700 veterans seeking treatment at facility in the southwestern city of Phoenix were consigned to limbo because they had never been added to official wait lists.
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 — and suggestions that up to 40 patients may have died while awaiting care. 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.
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 Phoenix facility.
“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 named Sloan Gibson, currently the deputy VA secretary, to run the department on an interim basis while he searches for another secretary.
He said Shinseki had begun the process of firing people and had canceled performance bonuses. The president said it would be up to the Justice Department to determine whether there was any criminal wrongdoing at the VA.
Associated Press writers Julie Pace, Pauline Jelinek and David Espo contributed to this story.