What will the next Veterans Affairs chief need to do?

BY Larisa Epatko  May 30, 2014 at 1:36 PM EDT
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters in Washington, D.C. Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters in Washington, D.C. Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

President Obama on Friday accepted the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, after a series of scandals regarding health care of veterans came to light. What does Shinseki’s resignation mean for the agency and what will his successor need to fix? We asked several analysts.

Phillip Carter, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said the VA inspector general’s report showed systemic problems within the agency that had existed for years under Shinseki’s watch, so President Obama didn’t have much of a choice but to accept his resignation.

The president had made health care a priority of his administration, and the VA scandals “cast doubt” on the government’s ability to deliver health care services, Carter said.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki testifies before the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee on May 15 about wait times veterans face to get medical care. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki testifies before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee on May 15 about wait times veterans face to get medical care. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Privatization is not the answer to the VA’s problems, but major changes still need to occur, according to Carter. The next agency chief will have to tackle an “antiquated” website data system that allowed employees to manipulate waiting lists for veterans seeking medical care, obscure audit trails and present a false picture to the leadership and veterans, he said.

Carter added that the VA also needs to better allocate resources to clinics and their staff based on where veterans live; restructure the system of management and oversight of the 151 veterans’ hospitals; and install a more accountable leadership that relies less on doctors and more on health care management experts to run the hospitals.

Peter Schuck, an adjunct professor of law at Yale Law School, said that even though Shinseki said he didn’t know about the problems, it doesn’t exonerate him. The deep-rooted problems at the VA would be easier to fix if it were easier to discipline and discharge incompetent workers, said Schuck.

In addition, Congress needs to have a hand in changing the incentives within the VA, providing sufficient resources and exercising tighter oversight, he said.

Dr. Stephen Xenakis, a retired brigadier general in the U.S. Army and senior adviser to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs for Wounded Warriors and Survivors, said rather than quick fixes, such as hiring a few more doctors, a transformation of the entire organization is necessary.

The problem is the VA doesn’t have a culture of “innovation” in finding new and better ways to serve the veteran population, and many people are stuck in their old habits, he said.

When announcing Shinseki’s resignation at the White House on Friday, President Obama said there will “have to be some changes in the culture within” the VA. The agency might need to get more doctors and nurses, but it needs to take care of basic management issues first, he said.

The president also praised Shinseki’s commitment to veterans and called his service to the country, including his time in the military, “exemplary.” He said Shinseki told him he does not want to be a distraction from the veterans getting the care they needed, “and I agree, we don’t need time for distractions, we need to fix the problems.”

President Obama said part of the distraction refers to politics. At least 100 lawmakers, including Democrats, had said Shinseki must resign over the systemic problems in the VA. The president said he didn’t want someone at the VA who has to spend time away from addressing the agency’s broader issues.

During the search for a permanent replacement for Shinseki, VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson will serve as acting secretary.

President Obama had met with Shinseki earlier in the day to get an update on the VA Department and discuss his job performance.

Shinseki has been roundly criticized for a massive backlog of veterans’ medical claims and more recently, revelations that a VA hospital in Phoenix was falsifying records on how long it took veterans to see a doctor.

Before his meeting with the president, Shinseki apologized and took responsibility for the practices of some leaders of veterans’ health care facilities. “I cannot explain the lack of integrity among some of the leaders of our health care facilities,” he said at a meeting of the National Coalition of Homeless Veterans in Washington, D.C., on Friday. “This is something I rarely encountered during 38 years in uniform. And so I will not defend it, because it is indefensible, but I can take responsibility for it and I do.”

Daniel Sagalyn and Anya van Wagtendonk contributed to the reporting. We’ll have more analysis on Friday’s PBS NewsHour broadcast.