By William Branigin,
WASHINGTON D.C. – Eric K. Shinseki resigned Friday as secretary of veterans affairs, taking responsibility for a scandal in the VA health-care system over excessive waiting times and coverups of what he called “systemic” problems.
President Obama announced that he accepted Shinseki’s resignation after agreeing with his embattled VA secretary that he had become a “distraction” as the department struggles to deal with a huge increase of veterans in need of care after more than a decade of war overseas.
Obama made the announcement shortly after Shinseki apologized publicly Friday for what he called an “indefensible” lack of integrity among some senior leaders of the VA health-care system and announced several remedial steps, including a process to remove top officials at the troubled VA medical center in Phoenix.
Speaking after a meeting with Shinseki at the White House, Obama said Shinseki had offered him his resignation.
“With considerable regret, I accepted,” Obama said. “We don’t have time for distractions,” he added. “We need to fix the problem.”
He said Sloan D. Gibson, the deputy secretary of veterans affairs, is taking over as acting secretary.
Obama paid tribute to Shinseki, telling reporters that he arrived at his decision to accept the VA chief’s resignation because of Shinseki’s “belief that he would be a distraction from the task at hand.”
“He is a very good man,” Obama said. “He’s a good person who’s done exemplary work on our behalf.” He said Shinseki concluded that “he could not carry out the next stages of reform without being a distraction himself.”
“I think he’s deeply disappointed in the fact that bad news did not get to him,” Obama said. “His priority now is to make sure that happens, and he felt like the new leadership would serve our veterans better, and I agreed with him.”
Earlier Friday, Shinseki gave no indication that he intended to resign, despite growing calls for him to step down because of the scandal.
At the end of a speech to an annual conference of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans in Washington, Shinseki addressed a new interim report on the VA health-care system’s problems. He said he now knows that the problems are “systemic,” rather than isolated as he thought in the past.
“That breach of integrity is irresponsible,” he told the largely supportive audience. “It is indefensible and unacceptable to me.” He said he was “too trusting” of some top officials and “accepted as accurate reports that I now know to have been misleading with regard to patient wait times.”
Obama summoned Shinseki to a meeting at the White House at 10:15 a.m. Friday to discuss the problems in the VA health-care system. The meeting ended at about 11 a.m., and Obama headed to the White House briefing room.
Shinseki, 71, a retired Army general, addressed the issue in his first public speech since the release Wednesday of a blistering interim report by the Veterans Affairs inspector general.
That independent review found that VA officials throughout the medical system had falsified records to hide the amount of time veterans had to wait for medical appointments. The allegations that VA officials were using elaborate schemes to hide long waiting times date back as far as 2010. The preliminary report’s findings, however, triggered a new flurry of calls for Shinseki’s resignation on Capitol Hill and fed widespread speculation that Obama would be forced to replace him.
In the latest blow to the VA secretary, Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), a former Veterans Affairs official who lost both her legs in the Iraq war, said Friday morning that Shinseki should resign.
“Our first priority should be the veterans, and at this point whether Secretary Shinseki will stay or go is too much of a distraction,” she told The Washington Post. “I think he has to go. He certainly loves veterans, but it’s time for new leadership.”
In his speech Friday morning, Shinseki touted his department’s successes in reducing homelessness among veterans, which he said has declined 24 percent from 2010 to 2014 despite a tough economy. He received a warm welcome from the Coalition for Homeless Veterans, and the conferees gave him a standing ovation at the end of his speech on the main topic.
Then Shinseki addressed what he called “the elephant in the room” and apologized to veterans, members of Congress and the American people for the health-care scandal. “All of them deserve better from their VA,” he said.
“I can’t explain the lack of integrity among some of the leaders of our health-care facilities,” he said. “And so I will not defend it, because it is indefensible. But I can take responsibility for it, and I do.”
He added: “So given the facts I now know, I apologize as the senior leader of the Department of Veterans Affairs. . . . But I also know this: that leadership and integrity problems can and must be fixed — and now.”
In addition to initiating a process to remove senior leaders of the Phoenix VA medical center, Shinseki said he issued directives that no senior VA executive will receive any performance award this year and that patient wait times be deleted from officials’ performance reviews as a measure of their success. He said the department is also contacting 1,700 veterans in Phoenix, who had been put on unofficial waiting lists, to ensure that they receive immediate care.
Shinseki asked Congress for “greater authority to remove senior leaders” and requested congressional support to fill existing VA leadership positions that are still vacant.
“This situation can be fixed,” he said. “We can do this in the days ahead, just as we have done for the past five years with veterans’ homelessness.”
The audience welcomed Shinseki with a standing ovation as soon as he entered the room, a tribute to what officials of the Coalition for Homeless Veterans said was his commitment to their cause.
John Driscoll, president and chief executive of the coalition, expressed confidence that Shinseki would address the VA health-care issues effectively. “I do believe that, armed with the findings of that report, his response is going to be swift and deliberate and well-reasoned,” he said in an interview.
Shinseki has proven to be a strong ally of the coalition, making the goal of ending veteran homelessness by 2015 one of his department’s top priorities.
“He has changed the world in which we operate,” Driscoll said. “He brought the coordination, he brought the leadership, he made a very firm plan on how to approach the issue of veteran homelessness — the focus on housing, the focus on employment and the focus on access to health services.”
On Thursday, Shinseki made an impassioned case to Democratic lawmakers and veterans groups that he can repair the Department of Veterans Affairs, even as calls for his resignation mounted and support from the White House appeared to wane.
The White House skirted questions Thursday about whether Obama still has confidence in Shinseki’s ability to lead the department, and a spokesman said the president is withholding judgment about who is responsible for the department’s failings until he reviews pending investigations of what went wrong.
By late Thursday, one-fifth of the Senate Democratic caucus had called for Shinseki’s ouster, and at least two dozen House Democrats, most of them locked in difficult reelection fights, were demanding that he be replaced.
Rep. Michael H. Michaud (Maine), the top Democrat on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said late Thursday that Shinseki should step down. The committee’s chairman, Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), has also called on Shinseki to leave office.
With his political support rapidly dwindling, Shinseki worked to retain the support of major veterans groups, which have backed him during the crisis, with the exception of the American Legion.
“He did not give any indication that he’s planning on stepping down,” Roscoe Butler, a deputy director with the American Legion, said Thursday.
In an hour-long meeting with veterans groups Thursday, Shinseki outlined plans to hold accountable VA employees who falsified waiting-list records.
Shinseki acknowledged that he had been too trusting of the information he received from VA hospital employees, and he said that during his 38-year military career he always thought he could trust reports from the field. Internal VA audits of 216 health-care centers have largely confirmed the inspector general’s findings of “systemic” efforts by VA employees to cover up long waits for medical care, according to the veterans groups that met with the secretary.