President Barack Obama announced on Friday the had accepted VA Secretary Eric Shinseki's resignation "with considerable regret" after determining that the politics of the growing scandal at the department were becoming a distraction.
Shinseki, a decorated Army general, was seen as damaged following a scandal over nationwide gaming of treatment numbers at VA hospitals, and dozens of members of Congress from both parties had called for him to step down.
Obama said Shinseki's commitment to veterans is unquestioned. He praised Shinseki for helping to reduce veteran homelessness, improve services for women veterans and cut back on the VA's record backlog of disability claims.
"Ric Shinseki has served his country with honor for nearly 50 years," Obama said. "He did two tours of combat in Vietnam. He's a veteran who left a part of himself on the battlefield. He rose to command the 1st Cavalry Division, served as Army chief of staff, and has never been afraid to speak truth to power."
Shinseki helped enroll 2 million new veterans in health care and oversaw the rollout of the post-9/11 GI Bill, Obama said.
"He has worked hard to investigate and identify the problems with access to care," Obama said. "But as he told me this morning, the VA needs new leadership to address them. He does not want to be a distraction because his priority is to fix the problem and make sure our vets are getting the care that they need. That was Ric's judgment on behalf of his fellow veterans."
Obama said he agreed.
"We don't have time for distractions. We need to fix the problem."
Scandal in the VA health care system
Inappropriate scheduling practices have compromised care of patients at Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals and clinics nationwide, according to a preliminary report issued this week by the VA inspector general.
The report revealed that the number of VA health care facilities under investigation for manipulating patient wait-time data to conceal treatment delays has expanded from 26 last week to 42.
Investigators also confirmed that 1,700 veterans were placed on an unofficial waiting list for primary care appointments at the VA hospital in Phoenix, but they did not determine whether the practice led to the deaths of 40 patients. Investigators will conduct a detailed review of medical records and autopsy results before drawing any conclusions about the link between the unofficial wait lists and the patients’ deaths.
Obama said Shinseki and Rob Nabors, a White House official the president hastemporarily assigned to work with the VA, told him this morning that the misconduct has taken place at many VA facilities across the country, not just in Phoenix.
"This is totally unacceptable. All veterans deserve the best. They have earned it," Obama said. "Last week I said that if we found misconduct, it would be punished, and I meant it."
Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said other senior VA officials should step down or be fired in the wake of Shinseki's resignation.
"There ought to be a lot of heads rolling because there is something in the culture of the VA that is not responding to serve our veterans the very best that they deserve," Nelson said in a statement.
'Indefensible and unacceptable'
Before resigning, Shinseki apologized Friday for the delayed treatment and other service lapses at VA hospitals that had prompted growing calls for him to step down.
Speaking at a conference in Washington on homeless veterans, Shinseki acknowledged that the long wait times and other problems at many VA health facilities across the country were more severe than he originally had realized. “We now know that VA has a systemic, totally unacceptable lack of integrity within some of our veterans health facilities,” Shinseki said. “That breach of integrity is irresponsible, it is indefensible and unacceptable to me.” Shinseki said aides had led him to believe the problems were isolated and limited to a relatively small number of VA hospitals and clinics. “Given the facts that I now know, I apologize as the senior leader of Veterans Affairs,” Shinseki said. Before resigning, Shinseki announced the removal of leaders at a troubled VA hospital in Phoenix, where problems that began surfacing earlier this year led to revelations of lapses at other veterans health facilities in the country.
Deputy Director of VA Sloan Gibson, a West Point graduate who joined the department just three months ago. Like Shinseki, Gibson has devoted his life to serving his country and veterans, the president said.
"Most recently, he was president and CEO of the USO, which does a remarkable job supporting our men and women at war, their families, our wounded warriors, and families of the fallen," Obama said.
"So, all told, Sloan has 20 years of private sector and non-profit experience that he brings to bear on our ongoing work to build a 21st century V.A. And I'm grateful that he is willing to take on this task."
The president said he met with Sloan after accepting Shinseki's resignation Friday morning and made it clear he needed to "proceed immediately" to fix the problems with improper scheduling practices and delayed care at VA.
"In the meantime, we're going to look diligently for a new permanent V.A. secretary, and we hope to confirm that successor and fill that post as soon as possible," he said.
Once a nominee has been found, they would need to be confirmed by the Senate.
The next VA secretary
Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican who'd called for Shinseki to step down more than three weeks ago, welcomed his resignation.
"We now need accountability and true reform within the VA all across the country," Moran, a member of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, said in a statement. "For this to occur, we need a fresh perspective and a leader who is willing to shake up the VA's bureaucratic culture."
Moran urged Obama to nominate a new VA chief from outside the ranks of the veterans health system.
Paul Rieckhoff, founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, urged Obama to choose a replacement for Shinseki who has served in one of the two recent wars.
"We encourage the president to look for an Iraq or Afghanistan veterans who will lead an aggressive turnaround of the VA," Rieckhoff said in a statement.
While the agency has "a long history of troubles," Rieckhoff said, the current crisis occurred on Obama's watch.
The Huffington Post reported after Obama's election in 2008 that some groups were urging him to appoint Tammy Duckworth, an Army veteran who lost her legs when her helicopter was shot down in Iraq. Duckworth is now a freshman U.S. representative from Illinois.
Correction: An early version of this story included an incorrect date for Shinseki's resignation.