WASHINGTON (CBSNewYork/AP) — Embattled U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki has resigned amid widespread troubles in the VA health care system.
President Barack Obama said he accepted the resignation with “considerable regret” during an Oval Office meeting.
“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 he needs,” Obama said Friday. “I agree. We don’t have time for distractions. We need to fix the problem.”
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Shinseki had been facing mounting calls to step down from lawmakers in both parties since a scathing internal report out Wednesday found broad and deep-seated problems in the sprawling health care system, which provides medical care to about 6.5 million veterans annually.
“I said we wouldn’t tolerate misconduct and we will not,” Obama said. “I said that we have to do better and we will. There are too many veterans receiving care right now who deserve all our best efforts and an honest assessment if something is not working.”
The president named Sloan D. Gibson, currently the deputy VA secretary, to run the department on an interim basis while he searches for another secretary.
In a speech earlier Friday to a veterans group, Shinseki said the problems outlined in the report were “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, the initial focus of the investigation.
He concurred with the report’s conclusion that the problems extended throughout the VA’s 1,700 health care facilities nationwide.
“I was too trusting of some, and I accepted as accurate reports that I now know to have misleading with regard to patient wait times,” Shinseki said. “But I can take responsibility for it, and I do.”
But some, including Howard and Jean Somers of Arizona, were not satisfied. Their son, Army Sgt. Daniel Somers, committed suicide after complaining about his VA treatment.
“I would actually have preferred that Shinseki stay, and maybe have a White House person alongside him to continue working on the problems,” Jean Somers said.
The VA is under the oversight of a U.S. House and Senate committee.
As CBS 2’s Dick Brennan reported, lawmakers have been calling for a complete overhaul of the system, including U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.)
“The bottom line is this – records were falsified. When that happens, often, bad things are hidden,” Schumer said. “We have to stop that from happening.”
Nine million veterans are enrolled in the health care system. The question now is how to take care of them with the system broken.
“In the short term, that means giving them access to private facilities, clinics, doctors, hospitals, and then having the VA provide vouchers and reimbursement,” said U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.)
Meanwhile, as CBS 2’s Lou Young reported Friday night, an army veteran at a VA facility said Shinseki made the right decision in resigning.
“He should resign or should step down, and somebody else should take over,” said Army veteran David Morris.
But Shinseki is not just another cabinet secretary. He is a Vietnam veteran with a Purple Heart.
At a Memorial Day parade in Yonkers, veterans gave him the benefit of the doubt.
“They had to pick someone to burn, and that’s who got the shot,” said Yonkers Veterans Affairs director Louis Novarro, adding that he thinks Shinseki was thrown under the bus.
The VA has seen a massive increase in veterans using its services in the past few years. Some have suggested the additional volume requires a systemic overhaul, but they are not ready to blame Shinseki for everything.
“It should go to the top,” said Marine veteran John Sullo, adding he was talking about President Obama.
The controversy now swirling around the VA stems from allegations that employees were keeping a secret waiting list at the Phoenix hospital and 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.
An inspector general’s report 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.
The 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.
“This situation can be fixed,” Shinseki told an audience of several hundred people from around the nation who have been working with the VA on helping homeless veterans. “Leadership and integrity problems can and must be fixed and now.”
He said the government would not give any performance bonuses this year, would use all authorities it has against those “who instigated or tolerated” the falsification of wait time records and that performance on achieving wait time targets will no longer be considered in employee job reviews.
He also asked Congress to support a bill by Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) which would give the department more authority to remove senior government employees who are in leadership positions.
The House has passed a similar bill that would give the VA more ability to fire up to 450 senior executives at the agency.
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