Embattled Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned this morning, two days after a Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General report revealed widespread, systematic problems that led to care delays at VA facilities across the country.
President Barack Obama made the announcement after meeting with Shinseki this morning, who earlier in the day apologized to veterans for the depth of the VA system problems. Obama appointed VA Deputy Secretary Sloan D. Gibson as acting secretary until he finds a permanent replacement.
Obama said Shinseki decided to step down because he would be a "distraction" as the OIG continues to investigate allegations of secret waitlists and care delays involving thousands of veterans. Obama described the four-star army general as a good person who is not just an accomplished and outstanding soldier, but someone who has led progress at the VA. "I regret he has to resign under this circumstance," the president said during the special news briefing.
"The number one priority is to get the problems fixed. If veterans need help and need to schedule a doctor and if the facility doesn't have enough doctors or nurses, that information needs to get into the hands of decision-makers to get more resources there," Obama said.
Obama said that Shinseki told him that his biggest disappointment is that VA officials did not report the problems so that he could make sure there were structures in place to fix them. "The priority now is to make that happen," said Obama, adding that he agrees with Shinseki that the problems run so deep that they require a new leader to make necessary changes.
Shinseki submitted his resignation hours after apologizing at a homeless veterans conference, where he said he underestimated the depth of the problems at the VA system, according to CNN, which first broke the news last month that the Phoenix VA hospital kept a secret waitlist to hide the fact that veterans had to wait months for an appointment and allegations that the delay in care led to the death of at least 40 veterans.
"The systemic failures in our VA system are inexcusable and must be fixed immediately so that this never happens again," he said.
Shinseki's decision to step down followed calls this week from both Democratic and Republican leaders for his resignation.
But his departure may just be the beginning of the fallout from the scandal. Obama called for a nationwide internal investigation into the allegations nine days ago, after allegations of similar misconduct at other VA facilities came to light. Obama promised that if the allegations proved true, he would hold individuals accountable. Since then, the preliminary OIG report confirmed the allegations at the Phoenix hospital and revealed that the problems were system-wide and not limited to the one facility.
The preliminary report revealed there are at least 1,700 veterans waiting to see a doctor at the Phoenix location that were never placed on a waitlist for an appointment.
"These veterans were and continue to be at risk of being forgotten or lost in Phoenix HCS' convoluted scheduling process," the report said. "As a result, these veterans may never obtain a requested or required clinical appointment."
In his remarks to veterans today, Shinseki said he was shocked by the evidence and admitted he failed to see the widespread problems at the healthcare facilities, CNN reported. As a result of the disclosure, he said the VA wouldn't provide bonuses to medical directors in the 150-hospital system this year.
Meanwhile, in the wake of the scandal, this week the House of Representatives approved a proposal to fund a Justice Department investigation of the alleged mismanagement of VA facilities, The Hill reported. Lawmakers want a criminal investigation into claims that the patient wait times were tied to employee bonuses, according to another CNN article.
The problems with delays in care can be traced to an acute shortage of primary care physicians to handle the number of patients in the VA system due to aging veterans from the Vietnam War and the younger ones who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, the New York Times reports.