WASHINGTON (CBSDC/AP) — President Barack Obama announced Friday that Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki has resigned over the recent scandal that has plagued the department.
“He offered me his own resignation, and with considerable regret, I accepted,” Obama said at the White House.
Obama said that Shinseki told him that the VA needs new leadership and that he did not want to be a distraction.
“We don’t have time for distractions,” Obama stated, “we need to fix the problems.”
Obama praised what Shinseki has done for the Veterans Affairs Department.
“He’s a good person who has done exemplary work on our behalf and under his leadership we have seen more progress on more fronts at the VA … than just about any other VA secretary,” Obama said.
Obama said he will leave it up to the Justice Department to see if there was any criminal wrongdoing.
“The VA is a big organization that has problems for a very long time,” Obama said. “What we’ve tried to do is systematically go after the problems we are aware of and fix them.”
When asked why he accepted Shinseki’s resignation while he did not allow Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius’ to resign following the bungled implementation of federal health care law, Obama said that it would a distraction for Sebelius to leave.
“With respect to Secretary Sebelius, at the time I thought it would be a distraction to replace somebody HHS at a time when we were trying to fix that system. And I wanted to just stay focused because I knew that if we bear down on it and we got folks enrolled that it would work,” Obama said.
Obama announced that Sloane Gibson, the deputy secretary of Veterans Affairs, will now serve as acting secretary.
Before meeting with Obama, Shinseki addressed the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans Friday, apologizing for the “systemic” problems at VA hospitals across the country.
“I said when this situation began weeks to months ago, that I thought the problem was limited and isolated because I believed that,” Shinseki said. “I no longer believe that. It is systemic.”
Shinseki told the coalition that he has begun the process of firing senior leaders at the Phoenix VA Health Care System.
A federal investigation of operations in the troubled Phoenix VA Health Care System found that about 1,700 veterans in need of care were “at risk of being lost or forgotten” after being kept off an official waiting list. While initially focused on Phoenix, the investigation described Wednesday by the VA Department’s inspector general found broad and deep-seated problems in the sprawling health care system, which provides medical care to about 6.5 million veterans annually.
The interim report confirmed earlier allegations of excessive waiting times for care in Phoenix, with an average 115-day wait for a first appointment for those on the waiting list — nearly five times as long as the 24-day average the hospital had reported.
Before resigning Friday, many lawmakers called on Shinseki to step down. Democratic Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine of Virginia, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Jeff Merkley of Oregon and New Mexico’s Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich all urged Shinseki to step aside. Eleven Senate Democrats called for Shinseki’s resignation since Wednesday, when the VA inspector general report came out. All but Kaine and Heinrich are on the ballot this fall.
Rep. Steve Israel, the New York Democrat who chairs the party’s campaign committee in the House, called for a criminal investigation of the department by the Justice Department and said of Shinseki, “If his resignation is what it takes to fix the problem, then yes, he should resign.”
And Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, said that while he respects Shinseki, a former four-star Army general who served in Vietnam, the IG’s report “does really move us closer to that point where we have to question his leadership.”
Durbin told radio station WGLT in Normal, Illinois: “If this is what I think it is, it could mean we need new leadership.”
The American Legion and dozens of Republicans called for Shinseki to resign, including Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, and Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, senior Republican on the Senate veterans panel. Arizona’s two Republican senators, John McCain and Jeff Flake, also called for Shinseki to step down.
The congressional calls for Shinseki’s resignation were mixed with criticism of a bonus system at the VA that has rewarded officials for meeting performance targets that proved to be unreasonable, including a maximum two-week waiting period for first-time appointments.
VA guidelines say veterans should be seen within 14 days of their desired date for a primary care appointment. Lawmakers have called that target unrealistic and said basing employee bonuses and pay raises on it is outrageous.
The target encourages employees to “game” the appointment system in order to collect bonuses based on on-time performance, lawmakers from both parties said at a House hearing late Wednesday on the VA mess.
“The last time I saw an example of this was Enron,” said Rep. Bill Flores, R-Texas. “We all know what happened at Enron … a flawed bonus system (was) driving bad behavior.”
Enron, a now-defunct energy giant, tinkered with its books to boost corporate income while hiding underlying problems and bad deals.
At the VA, the inspector general described a process in which schedulers ignored the date that a provider or veteran wanted for an appointment. Instead, the scheduler selected the next available appointment and used that as the baseline, resulting in a false zero-day wait time.
Thomas Lynch, an administrator at the Veterans Health Administration, an arm of the VA, said at the hearing that the bonus system had had an unintended negative effect.
“Our performance measures have become our goals, not tools to help us understand where we needed to invest resources,” he told the House Veterans Affairs Committee. “We undermined the integrity of our data.”
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