WASHINGTON – Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki has resigned, President Barack Obama said Friday.
Obama said he would demand accountability if problems were found at VA medical facilities and accepted Shinseki’s resignation.
The two met at the White House before the President announced the development, which came as political pressure mounted for the Cabinet officer to step down.
“I regret he has to resign under these circumstances,” Obama said.
Obama made a statement in the White House briefing room less than an hour after Shinseki arrived to discuss preliminary findings about sometimes deadly waits for veterans to get care at VA hospitals and other problems.
Speaking earlier Friday to a veterans group, Shinseki said he underestimated the depth of problems in the VA system and announced several steps, fixes, including removal of senior leaders at the Phoenix VA hospital and elimination of performance awards for VA leaders in 2014.
The retired Army general also apologized to veterans and Congress, but declared: “This situation can be fixed.”
He then went to the White House to meet with Obama about the problems that gained prominence after CNN began reporting problems at VA facilities in November. He left the White House after the meeting.
In an interview taped Thursday and broadcast Friday on ABC, Obama promised “a serious conversation” with Shinseki “to see whether he thinks that he is prepared and has the capacity to take on the job of fixing it because I don’t want any veteran to not be getting the kind of services they deserve.”
A source close to Shinseki said the retired Army general indicated in conversations this week that he will not offer his resignation unless asked for it.
“He’s not stubborn, but he will go in armed with the facts. He knows what to do. He knows it’s an uphill battle,” the source said ahead of Shinseki’s meeting with the President.
Facing mounting calls to resign, Shinseki on Friday spoke to representatives of the people particularly vulnerable to his agency’s medical failings. He was the featured speaker at the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans’ annual conference in Washington.
Some veterans have died during long delays in medical care, and it has recently come to light that at least one hospital tied employee bonuses to patient wait times.
Shinseki received a standing ovation at the beginning and end of his appearance. After touting improvements in delivery of services to homeless veterans, Shinseki said at the end that he wanted to talk about “the elephant in the room.”
The secretary said he was shocked by the inspector general’s report, released Wednesday, on failings in the VA system, especially the prevalence of wait lists for veterans needing medical care.
“That breach of integrity is irresponsible, it is indefensible and unacceptable to me,” he said. “I said when this situation began weeks to months ago and I thought the problem was limited and isolated because I believed that. I no longer believe that. It is systemic.”
Shinseki, who has been VA chief for five years, said he was misled by others.
“I was too trusting of some, and I accepted as accurate reports that I now know to have been misleading with regard to patient wait times,” he said. “I can’t explain the lack of integrity among some of the leaders of our health care facilities. This is something I rarely encounter during 38 years in uniform and so I will not defend it because it’s indefensible, but I can take responsibility for it and I do.”
Among other changes announced: eliminating wait times as a way to evaluate supervisors’ performance, accelerating administration of care to veterans and asking Congress to fill VA leadership vacancies quickly.
In the latest accusation against the agency, U.S. Reps. Mike Doyle and Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania issued a statement saying 700 veterans had been placed on a primary care waiting list for doctor appointments at the Pittsburgh VA center, with some waiting since 2012.
Late Thursday, a ranking Democratic congressman on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee joined colleagues from both sides of the aisle to demand Shinseki throw in the towel.
“Democrats and Republicans alike, in tandem with our Veteran Service Organizations and the millions of Americans who have served our nation, all want to get to the bottom of what exactly is broken with the VA system, and what we can do to fix it,” Rep. Mike Michaud of Maine said in a statement.
But Shinseki has become the focal point, and it is time for him to go, so progress can be made, he said.
“The systemic failures in our VA system are inexcusable and must be fixed immediately so that this never happens again,” he said.
A number of Democratic senators — many of them facing rough re-election battles this year — have joined the bipartisan chorus urging the secretary to resign or the President to fire him.
“The inspector general’s preliminary report makes it clear that the systemic problems at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs are so entrenched that they require new leadership to be fixed,” said Mark Udall of Colorado, the first Senate Democrat to call for a change at the top.
U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, of Oklahoma, issued the following statement:
“Shinseki has honorably served his country through his service in two wars and through the variety of command positions in the U.S. Army. While he understands first-hand what it means to be a veteran, I hope that his resignation gives the opportunity for new leadership in the Department of Veterans Affairs to quickly and effectively enact overdue reforms in the VA. This will also require Congress to do its job of providing oversight and the President to step up and lead as our Commander-in-Chief. This is about more than just fraudulent waiting lists. When America sends our men and women to war, we vow to care for them when they return. Instead, over the past several years, they have endured waiting lists just to gain access to what often turns out to be poor quality of care. With over 2 million Americans having served in Iraq and Afghanistan, the VA will be faced with a new influx of patients in the coming years, and it must to be ready to meet their health needs.”
U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn also released a statement regarding the resignation Shinseki:
“The American people and our nation’s veterans need reform at the VA, not just resignations. Further, more money is not the answer. Funding for the VA has grown at more than three times the rate of inflation since 2009. My office has also learned that at the end of Fiscal Year 2013, the VA held nearly $35 billion in unspent funds, which is more than the entire annual budget of the National Institutes of Health. It’s long past time we gave our veterans the freedom they fought for. I look forward to introducing legislation with Senators McCain and Burr that will accomplish that goal in the coming days.”