VA's Eric Shinseki resigns, says scandal-tainted agency

5/30/2014

By Richard Simon and Michael Muskal

By Richard Simon and Michael Muskal

Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON (MCT) — President Barack Obama accepted the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki on Friday, hours after the beleaguered retired general apologized and accepted responsibility for the health care scandal that has turned his agency into a political war zone.

Shinseki was scheduled to meet with the president to discuss how to deal with the agency's failures to provide health care for veterans in a timely manner and efforts to keep the names of hundreds of veterans off of official lists to hide that they were not being served.

But, speaking to reporters after the session, Obama announced that Shinseki had offered his resignation and that the president had accepted it "with considerable regret." Shinseki had said the VA needed new leadership to address the problems and that the former general didn't want to be a distraction.

"I agree," Obama said. "We don't have time for distractions. We need to fix the problem."

"I said we have to do better, and we will," the president said at the White House.

Sloan Gibson, a West Point graduate who served as an Army infantry officer and is currently the VA's deputy secretary, will take over as acting secretary, the president announced. He is a former banker and former president and chief executive of the United Services Organizations.

Shinseki had been on thin political ice for days, and his departure had seemed to be a political inevitability. The retired four-star general, whom Obama appointed to lead the VA in 2009, had asked for patience while the allegations were being investigated. But a scathing report by the department's inspector general, released Wednesday, found systemic problem at VA facilities nationwide.

The report sparked immediate outrage on Capitol Hill, leading to new calls from not only congressional Republicans but also Democrats — especially those up for re-election — for Shinseki to step down. More than 125 members of Congress, including 42 Democrats, advocated for Shinseki to resign or be replaced.

The 71-year-old former Army chief of staff, who held the VA secretary's job longer than any of his predecessors, was widely admired for a 38-year military career that cost him half of his foot in Vietnam.

Shinseki took a number of actions in response to the reports of mismanagement, including placing three officials from the Phoenix VA on administrative leave and moving to offer veterans who endured waits of more than 30 days for appointments the option of seeking private care at the department's expense.

But lawmakers from both parties grew impatient as the investigation grew to 42 VA facilities, up from the previously reported 26. Critics argued that the VA needed a fresh face at the top to restore confidence in the department, which operates 1,700 hospitals and clinics handling 85 million appointments a year.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, said it was appropriate for Shinseki to take responsibility, but the lawmaker said there were others in the VA who also should be blamed.

"Those who surrounded Shinseki shielded him from crucial facts and hid bad news reports," the lawmaker said.

"Right now, VA needs a leader who will take swift and decisive action to discipline employees responsible for mismanagement, negligence and corruption that harms veterans while taking bold steps to replace the department's culture of complacency with a climate of accountability. VA's problems are deadly serious, and whomever the next secretary may be, they will receive no grace period from America's veterans, American taxpayers and Congress."

Shinseki told the veterans advocates that he was moving to remove the senior leadership from the Phoenix VA facility. He also said he was forbidding any bonuses this year for senior executives and removing patient wait times from performance reviews as a measure of success. He said he had ordered VA staff to immediately contact each of the 1,700 veterans in the report and help arrange treatment.

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