By David Alexander and Mark Felsenthal
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Embattled Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned on Friday following a meeting with President Barack Obama that came amid a firestorm of outrage over delays in medical care for U.S. veterans.
Shortly after the private White House session, Obama announced to reporters that “with considerable regret, I accepted” Shinseki’s resignation. The move came after a growing number of Democrats and Republicans in Congress, as well as some veterans’ groups, had called for his removal.
Obama said he accepted the resignation of the soft-spoken, 71-year-old retired Army general after being briefed on the initial findings of the investigation into abuses that were initially found in Phoenix but later identified at other facilities across the country.
Obama praised Shinseki’s military career and accomplishments at the VA, including tackling issues like post-traumatic stress syndrome and homelessness among veterans.
“Ric’s commitment to our veterans is unquestioned. His service to our country is exemplary,” Obama said. “He has worked hard to investigate and identify the problems with access to care. But, as he told me this morning, the VA needs new leadership to address them.”
The rising number of veterans with combat-related injuries from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars has placed greater demands on the VA.
Members of Congress immediately applauded the move as a step toward restoring confidence in the embattled agency that provides healthcare and other benefits to veterans.
“The denial of care to our veterans is a national disgrace and it’s fitting that the person who oversees the Department of Veterans Affairs has accepted responsibility for this growing scandal and resigned,” said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
Representative Peter Welch, a Vermont Democrat, said: “Obviously General Shinseki came to the conclusion that he’d lost the confidence, at least, of Congress. He stepped aside so the debate could be about fixing the VA as opposed to his status.”
The scandal over long delays, which were being concealed by VA officials, in providing medical care to veterans comes just five months before congressional elections in which all 435 House of Representatives seats are up for grabs, along with one-third of the 100-member Senate.
Inspector general probes are now active at 42 VA locations around the country and have put Obama and his Democrats on the defensive ahead of the November congressional elections. Republicans have attacked the administration over the problems, saying it was an example of mismanagement.
Obama said Sloan Gibson, deputy secretary of the VA, would take the helm at the agency on an acting basis while he looked “diligently” for a new permanent VA secretary.
Shinseki’s resignation came just hours after he addressed the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans and apologized to veterans, lawmakers and the American people for the abuses, in which administrators manipulated waiting lists to hide exactly how long patients had to wait to see a physician.
Shinseki announced the steps the VA would take to deal with the corrupt practices found at some of its healthcare facilities.
He said he was removing the senior leaders at the Phoenix VA medical center and would use all authority at his disposal to hold accountable those “who instigated or tolerated dishonorable or irresponsible scheduling.”
Shinseki said no senior executives of the Veterans Health Administration would receive performance awards this year and the use of scheduling times as a measure of good performance would be eliminated.
The VA is also taking action to ensure that the 1,700 Phoenix veterans still waiting to see a doctor would have appointments quickly, he said.
“We now know that VA has a systemic, totally unacceptable lack of integrity within some of our veterans health facilities,” Shinseki said. “That breach of integrity is irresponsible, it is indefensible and unacceptable to me.”
(Reporting by Susan Heavey, David Alexander, Mark Felsenthal, Richard Cowan and David Lawder; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Gunna Dickson)