A top Veterans Affairs official has resigned amid allegations that as many as 40 veterans died while waiting for primary health care.
Under pressure for swift action in response to the allegations, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki announced Friday that he accepted the resignation of Dr. Robert Petzel, under secretary for health at the VA.
“As we know from the veteran community, most veterans are satisfied with the quality of their VA health care, but we must do more to improve timely access to that care,” Shinseki said in a statement.
The high-ranking VA official’s resignation came just one day after Shinseki was grilled by the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee over allegations that dozens of veterans needlessly died while waiting for primary health care. According to whistleblowers, officials in the Phoenix, Ariz. VA Health Care System kept a “secret list” that shielded excessive wait times for primary care appointments.
Though Petzel is the first top official to step down amid the controversy, veterans groups and lawmakers said the move doesn't exactly pack a punch. Petzel had already announced last September that he planned to retire, and President Obama nominated his replacement earlier this month.
"He should not shoulder the blame for VA's failures," Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kentucky), a member of the Veterans' Affairs Committee, said of Petzel in a statement. "Rather than the VA focusing on damage control, action should be taken immediately to change the bureaucratic culture of mediocrity at the VA and ensure the highest quality and most timely care for our nation's heroes."
Tom Tarantino, chief policy officer of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said Petzel's resignation is not the step toward accountability that veterans groups were looking for.
“We don't need the VA to find a scapegoat; we need an actual plan to restore a culture of accountability throughout the VA," Tarantino said in a statement.
Robert Jesse, principal deputy under secretary for health, will serve in Petzel's position temporarily until the Senate confirms his replacement, NBC News reports.
Meanwhile, Shinseki himself is on the chopping block after the nation’s top veterans group and a handful of lawmakers called for his resignation over the alleged scandal. The American Legion, the largest veterans group in the country, was the first to come forward with demands for Shinseki to step down. Over on Capitol Hill, Republican lawmakers have led the charge against the VA chief; a GOP-led committee made an extremely rare move of hitting Shinseki and other top VA officials with a round of subpoenas.
The retired four-star Army general resisted calls to step down Thursday, saying he was “personally angered and saddened” by the allegations.
"Any allegation, any adverse incidents like this, makes me mad as hell," Shinseki told the committee. "I could use stronger language here, Mr. Chairman, but in deference to the committee, I won't."
President Obama has ordered a review of Veterans Health Administration practices, the White House said in a statement Friday.
"This review is one of the many steps the Department of Veterans Affairs is taking to ensure our veterans have confidence in and access to the care and benefits they have earned and deserve," the White House statement read. "The president and Secretary Shinseki take the allegations around misconduct very seriously."
The VA tasked an Inspector General (IG) to investigate the allegations, and placed three hospital officials in Phoenix on administrative leave.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont Democrat and chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, on Thursday pledged to hold a congressional hearing on the findings of the IG's investigation, cautioning that it was not time to be hasty.
“If we’re going to do our job in a proper and responsible way we need to get the facts and not rush to judgment,” Sanders said. “One of the concerns that I have to be very honest is that there has been a little bit of a rush to judgment.”