WASHINGTON — Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki apologized in public and then resigned in the privacy of the White House on Friday, driven from office by a mushrooming scandal over the agency’s health care system that serves millions of the nation’s former warriors.
President Barack Obama said he accepted the resignation “with considerable regret,” and appointed Sloan Gibson, the agency’s No. 2 official, as temporary secretary. Obama also said that the Justice Department would determine if any illegality had occurred, and that a top White House aide who has been detailed to the Veterans Affairs Department would remain there for the time being.
As for Shinseki, Obama said, “I regret that he has to resign under these circumstances.” He lavished praise on the Vietnam veteran and former Army chief of staff for his decades of service. He said the Cabinet officer had told him “he does not want to be a distraction” from the need to repair the agency, a task the president said pointedly could well require Congress to approve additional money.
A lifetime of service, in uniform and out, wasn’t enough to save Shinseki’s career, though, after agency investigators reported widespread problems in its sprawling hospital system. They reported that 1,700 veterans seeking treatment at the Phoenix facility alone were consigned to limbo because they had never been added to official wait lists.
In the 36 hours that followed the findings on Wednesday, Democrats in tough re-election races joined Republicans in clamoring for Shinseki’s resignation.
In an appearance before a veterans group before he met with Obama, Shinseki said, “I extend an apology to the people whom I care most deeply about — that’s the veterans of this great country — to their families and loved ones, who I have been honored to serve for over five years now. It’s the calling of a lifetime.”
He called the problems outlined in the midweek report “totally unacceptable” and a “breach of trust” that he found indefensible. He announced he would take a series of steps to respond, including ousting senior officials at the troubled Phoenix health care facility.
He concurred with the report’s conclusion that the problems extended throughout the VA’s 1,700 health care facilities nationwide, and he said that “I was too trusting of some” in the VA system.
Obama said Shinseki told him the agency needs new leadership and that he didn’t want to be a distraction. “I agree. We don’t have time for distractions. We need to fix the problem.”
As his last act as a Cabinet official, Shinseki submitted a preliminary audit, which concluded that some VA schedulers were pressured to make waiting times for medical appointments appear shorter than they actually were.
The review said the agency would revoke a 14-day standard as a goal in performance reviews, and also suspend bonuses for this budget year.
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.
And Shinseki’s departure seemed unlikely to end an election-year political struggle between the parties.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, 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.”
The Republican-controlled House passed one measure recently to give the VA more ability to fire up to 450 senior executives. The Democratic-controlled Senate is likely to debate a different version in the following week.
Gibson, the president’s choice to take over the agency at least temporarily, has held the No. 2 post since February. He was formerly president and chief executive officer of the USO, the nonprofit organization that provides programs and services to U.S. troops and their families. Gibson is the son of an Army Air Corpsman who served in World War II and grandson of a World War I Army infantryman.
The VA has a goal of trying to give patients appointments 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, members of Congress and veterans 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.