It’s finally the end for Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki.
President Obama announced Friday morning that he accepted Shinseki’s resignation during a private meeting at the White House. VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson will take over as interim secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Obama stressed that he was very reluctant to accept Shinseki’s resignation, but the departing VA chief was concerned about becoming a “distraction” from fixing the broken VA health care system. “It was Ric’s judgment, his belief that he would be a distraction from the task at hand” that led to this, Obama said.
“I said that we have to do better, and we will,” Obama said in a statement in the White House’s press briefing room.
Sloan and White House Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors will work on addressing the needs of the 1,700 veterans who were left off the Phoenix VA system’s official waiting list. “At this stage what I want is somebody at the VA who is not spending time outside of solving problems for the veterans,” the president said.
Obama also said that he would leave decisions about any criminal wrongdoing to the Justice Department.
More than 100 lawmakers had called for Shinseki to step down by Thursday evening, including veterans in both the House and Senate. Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois, a disabled Iraq war veteran and former VA official, became the most recent addition to the list on Friday.
Shinskei has been under fire since allegations surfaced in April that there were so-called “secret waiting lists” for veterans at the Phoenix VA, and that at least 40 veterans had died while waiting for primary care appointments.
In response, Shinseki ordered an investigation, and more than 200 staffers are in the process of auditing the entire VA system. He laid out his work on investigating and addressing problems in the system in an op-ed published Thursday in USA Today.
Until this week, the White House had avoided criticizing Shinseki too directly, although Press Secretary Jay Carney acknowledged that Obama found the Inspector General’s report “extremely troubling.” By Thursday evening, more than 10 Democratic Senators had joined Republicans in the House and Senate in calling for Shinseki to resign.
Shinseki is a retired four star Army general who served for 38 years. He lost part of his foot to a land mine while serving in Vietnam. Shinseki first became known as the general who predicted that the United States would need hundreds of thousands of troops to prop up post-invasion Iraq in 2003. While he was proven right, his congressional testimony on the subject effectively ended his military career.
During his tenure as VA secretary, he made combating homelessness among veterans a department priority.
In its report on scheduling at the Phoenix VA, the VA’s Office of the Inspector General admitted that the problems in the system were not of Shinseki’s making. “Since 2005, the VA Office of Inspector General (OIG) has issued 18 reports that identified, at both the national and local levels, deficiencies in scheduling resulting in lengthy waiting times and the negative impact on patient care,” the report read.
The end of Shinseki’s time at the head of Veterans Affairs will still leave years of systemic failure to be addressed.
As Obama considers his pick for a permanent secretary, Paul Rieckhoff, CEO and founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, urged Obama to appoint a veteran of the most recent wars to “lead an aggressive turnaround of the VA.”
“IAVA members are standing by to work with the president to improve the VA but we should be clear that America’s veterans will not accept a symbolic change of management alone. We know and respect Sloan Gibson and are standing by to support him but this is just the first step on a long path to true reform. It will be a tough fight but IAVA members are up for it and stand ready to lead and serve.”
The American Legion, the first major veterans group to call for Shinseki to resign, emphasized how much work must still be done. “It is not the solution, yet it is a beginning. The solution is not complete with Shinseki’s resignation. Too many veterans have waited far too long to receive the benefits that they have earned. Wait times are increasing even for fully developed claims. But it was never just about a few of the top leaders. The solution is to weed out the incompetence and corruption within the VHA and the VBA so the dedicated employees can continue to perform admirably on behalf of our nation’s veterans,” American Legion National Commander Daniel M. Dellinger said in a statement.
Many lawmakers also commented on the fact that one resignation will not fix a system that has been ailing for decades. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said that Friday’s announcement did not change the dire state of affairs. “One personnel change cannot be used as an excuse to paper over a systemic problem,” he said.
Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado, who was the first Democrat to ask Shinseki to resign, echoed Boehner’s remarks in his own statement. Shinseki’s resignation, he said in a statement, “doesn’t fix the systemic problems within the VA or give veterans the services they’ve earned. This goes beyond the Phoenix facility. The president and Acting Secretary Gibson must take immediate steps to restore veterans’ faith in the VA and to ensure that veterans receive the services and care they’ve earned without further delay.”
Sen. Rand Paul sent a letter to acting VA Secretary Gibson asking for the results of reviews conducted on Kentucky VA facilities. In a speech Friday morning, Shinseki said that the results of the nationwide audit of all VA locations would be released soon.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, said in a statement, “Until the VA undergoes a systemic overhaul, and is once again able to deliver the highest standard of care to our veterans, we need to take creative steps that will yield immediate results.” Gabbard is a veteran of the Iraq war.