The White House stood by Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki through mounting calls for his resignation over the department’s waitlist scandal, but today he finally stepped down.
President Obama called an impromptu news conference this morning at which he said moments before he’d seen the department’s initial review on allegations of secret waitlists that left veterans waiting long periods for care and even dying during these periods.
“What they found is that the misconduct has not been limited to a few VA facilities but many across the country,” Obama said, adding that the findings are “unacceptable”
He said Shinseki had begun firing people associated with the waitlists and canceled bonuses for senior executives. Shinseki directed the VA to contact every veteran waiting in Phoenix.
“A few minutes ago Secretary Shinseki offered me his resignation,” Obama said. “With regret, I accepted.”
He went on to praise Shinseki, saying that his commitment to veterans is “unquestioned” and that the secretary “has worked hard to investigate and identify the problem… he does not want to be a distraction.”
“I agree we don’t have time for distractions,” Obama said. “We need to fix the problem.”
Acting Secretary Sloan Gibson, who became deputy secretary at the VA just three months ago, will take over the agency. Obama said he hopes to have a nominee before Congress soon.
Obama said the only change that led to the resignation was Shinseki’s “judgment.”
“He is a very good man… who’s done exemplary work on our behalf,” the president said. “… I think he’s deeply disappointed that bad news didn’t get to him.”
However, as of this morning, 119 lawmakers were calling for Shinseki’s resignation, including 10 Democratic senators and 27 House Dems.
Backers of Shinseki in Congress included Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Even House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) wasn’t jumping on the resignation bandwagon, expressing concern that Shinseki could be used by the administration as a scapegoat.
“I’m going to continue to reserve judgment on General Shinseki,” Boehner told reporters at a GOP news conference yesterday. “The question I ask myself, is him resigning going to get us to the bottom of the problem? Is it going to help us find out what’s really going on? And the answer I keep giving is no. But the real issue here is that the president is the one who should be held accountable.”
Obama was asked at this morning’s news conference is Shinseki was a scapegoat. “Meaning?” Obama replied.
Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) called it “time for a fresh pair of eyes on this calamity.”
“His resignation alone will not solve this problem, because this isn’t just about one man—it is about a culture change. We need to hold accountable those who were carrying out or encouraging these practices day to day, and we must ensure that the VA health system provides the responsiveness and quality care our veterans deserve,” Donnelly said. “It’s clear that the current scheduling system is woefully inadequate and allows for those who want to game the system to disregard the standards we expect for those who have so honorably served our country. We must not stop until the system is fixed.”
Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) said Shiseki’s replacement “should not come from within the current dysfunctional system that is failing our veterans.”
“I hope the president is willing to give veterans an individual they can trust to take the Department of Veteran’s Affairs in a new direction, and give veterans hope that the VA can move beyond its failures and provide them with the care they earned and deserve,” Moran said.