Susan Walsh, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned Friday in a personal meeting with President Barack Obama, shortly after publicly apologizing for deep problems plaguing the agency's health care system that Obama called "totally unacceptable."
Obama said he accepted the retired four-star general's resignation "with considerable regret" during an Oval Office meeting. Shinseki had been facing mounting calls to step down from lawmakers in both parties since a scathing internal report out Wednesday found broad and deep-seated problems in the sprawling health care system, which provides medical care to about 6.5 million veterans annually.
Obama said Shinseki had served with honor, but the secretary told him the agency needs new leadership and he doesn't want to be a distraction. "I agree. We don't have time for distractions. We need to fix the problem," Obama said.
The president named Sloan D. Gibson, currently the deputy VA secretary, to run the department on an interim basis while he searches for another secretary. The president said he met with Gibson after accepting the resignation from Shinseki, who has overseen the VA since the start of Obama's presidency.
A career banker, Gibson has held the No. 2 post at the department since February of this year. He came to the department after serving as president and chief executive officer of the USO, a nonprofit organization that provides programs and services to U.S. troops and their families, and after a 20-year career in banking.
Gibson is the son of an Army Air Corpsman who served in World War II and grandson of a World War I Army Infantryman.
Obama said an audit submitted by Shinseki shows that the problems are not limited to a few facilities but to many across the country. "It is totally unacceptable," Obama said. "Our vets deserve the best; they've earned it."
Obama said Shinseki had begun the process of firing people and had canceled performance bonuses. The president said it would be up to the Justice Department to determine whether there was any criminal wrongdoing at the VA.
In a speech earlier Friday to a veterans group, Shinseki said the problems outlined in the report were "totally unacceptable" and a "breach of trust" that he found indefensible. He announced he would take a series of steps to respond, including ousting senior officials at the troubled Phoenix health care facility, the initial focus of the investigation.
He concurred with the report's conclusion that the problems extended throughout the VA's 1,700 health care facilities nationwide, and said that "I was too trusting of some" in the VA system.
The VA has a goal of trying to give patients an appointment within 14 days of when they first seek care. Treatment delays — and irregularities in recording patient waiting times — have been documented in numerous reports from government and outside organizations for years and have been well-known to VA officials, member of Congress and veteran service organizations.
But the controversy now swirling around the VA stems from allegations that employees were keeping a secret waiting list at the Phoenix hospital — and that up to 40 patients may have died while awaiting care. A preliminary VA inspector general probe into the allegations found systemic falsification of appointment records at Phoenix and other locations but has not made a determination on whether any deaths are related to the delays.
The agency has been struggling to keep up with a huge demand for its services — some 9 million enrolled now compared to 8 million in 2008. The influx comes from returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, aging Vietnam War vets who now have more health problems, a move by Congress to expand the number of those eligible for care and the migration of veterans to the VA during the last recession after they lost their jobs or switched to the VA when their private insurance became more expensive.
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