WASHINGTON — Today’s resignation of the Veterans Affairs undersecretary for health may have been timed to look like a fall guy was anointed after Robert Petzel and his department faced criticism at a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing.
But the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee called shenanigans: Petzel was already due to retire this year.
Appearing alongside VA Secretary Eric Shineski at Thursday’s hearing, neither official would commit to firing those responsible for maintaining secret waiting lists that allegedly kept veterans from seeing doctors while giving an outward appearance on paper of acceptable wait times.
“I can’t give you an example specifically, but if someone were found to be manipulating inappropriately the scheduling system, they would be disciplined,” Petzel said.
When Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) asked if they would lose their job, Petzel replied, “I don’t know whether that’s the appropriate level of punishment or not.”
“Today, I accepted the resignation of Dr. Robert Petzel, Under Secretary for Health in the Department of Veterans Affairs,” Shinseki said in a statement today. “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.”
“I am committed to strengthening Veterans’ trust and confidence in their VA healthcare system,” he added. “I thank Dr. Petzel for his four decades of service to Veterans.”
White House press secretary Jay Carney issued a statement saying that “the President supports Secretary Shinseki’s decision.”
“As the President has said, America has a sacred trust with the men and women who have served our country in uniform and he is committed to doing all we can to ensure our veterans have access to timely, quality health care,” Carney said. “…The President and Secretary Shinseki take the allegations around misconduct very seriously, and Secretary Shinseki has committed to taking appropriate actions based on the findings of the independent VA Office of Inspector General investigation. Both the President and the Secretary thank Dr. Petzel for his many years of service to veterans.”
But a Sept. 20, 2013, press release on the VA website said a commission was being convened as required by law to look for replacements to be recommended to President Obama — because Petzel “will retire in 2014 as planned, following a four-year tenure as Under Secretary for Health.”
“I am grateful for Dr. Petzel’s distinguished service to Veterans spanning four decades, and for his leadership in transforming VHA’s health care delivery system to better care for Veterans,” Shinseki said in that statement. “Dr. Petzel has assured me that he will continue to serve in his position until the Senate confirms a new Under Secretary for Health, in order to ensure a smooth transition.”
“I have appreciated the privilege to serve Veterans by developing a healthcare system that reaches beyond simple treatment of diseases to a true partnership with Veterans,” Petzel said then. “VA will continue to partner with Veteran patients throughout their lives in order to improve their health and well-being.”
House Veterans Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) issued a statement calling Petzel’s “resignation” today “the pinnacle of disingenuous political doublespeak.”
“Petzel was already scheduled to retire in 2014 and President Obama has already announced his intention to nominate Petzel’s replacement, so characterizing this as a ‘resignation’ just doesn’t pass the smell test,” Miller said. “Desperate to get ahead of a delays in care crisis that is growing by the day, yet apparently unwilling to take substantive actions to hold any of its leaders accountable for negligence that harms veterans, VA has resorted to what it does best: splitting semantic hairs to create the illusion of accountability and progress.”
“After yesterday’s out-of-touch performance from Sec. Shinseki, I was disappointed. Today, I am even more disillusioned.”
Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kansas), among the lawmakers who has called on Shinseki to resign, said the news about Petzel was “not a surprise” given his earlier retirement announcement but “evidence of the dysfunction at the VA.”
“It is important to note that Undersecretary Petzel was the only VA witness at the Senate VA Committee hearing who admitted knowledge of IG reports – he should not shoulder the blame for VA’s failures,” Moran said. “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.”
Carney today talked in shades of the IRS scandal, when he suggested that the allegations of waitlist deaths were confined to Phoenix instead of a broader systemic problem. New claims of VA wrongdoing that kept veterans from seeing doctors have since popped up around the country.
“I think that there are — there’s an active review and — as well as an investigation by the I.G. that will determine both the — what happened in Phoenix and I’m sure, what happened elsewhere if — if some of the other allegations that we’ve seen merit investigation,” Carney told reporters.
“You’re saying there’s a suggestion that something terrible happened in Phoenix and that’s under investigation… We are acting on the allegations and the suggestions that you suggest — you pointed out,” he said in a verbal tussle. “…We should just accept allegations as true without investigating them? I don’t think that would be a normal procedure. Meanwhile, we are moving aggressively in a host of areas to ensure that our veterans are getting the — the services and the care that they deserve.”
Why, Carney was asked, would Shinseki tell the Senate committee that he was “mad as hell” if the allegations weren’t true?
“The fact is, if what has been alleged is true, that would be an outrage, and that is an opinion shared by the president, by Secretary Shinseki, and I think everyone else who’s looked at this matter and works on these issues, but the president was asked about the allegations and answered forthrightly and expressed his concern about it, the actions that we’ve taken reflect the concern that we have about it, and the fact that he’s sent one of his most trusted and top aides from the White House over to the V.A. to assist the secretary in his review reflects the seriousness with which we take this matter,” Carney said.
“But again, I would simply say that it stands to reason that when allegations are made, it’s important to be that they are investigated to find out the truth behind the matter before we just assume that what happened or what’s said to have happened is true. I’m not in any way prejudging because I don’t think we ought to prejudge.”
Among the new reports popping up of waitlist fraud came from Gainesville, Fla., where the Ocala Star Banner revealed that the VA suspended three employees over a 200-name-long secret waiting list for mental health treatment.
“This would be outrageous in its own right, but it’s even more so because of the pervasive problems emerging about the VA each day in all corners of the country,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said.
Rubio said he asked Shinseki earlier in the week for all information regarding secret VA waiting lists in Florida and Biloxi, Miss. “I don’t want to wait until everything is ready. I want to see what is available now, starting with Gainesville,” he said.
“From problems in Phoenix to Miami and now potentially Gainesville too, we’ve seen plenty of finger-pointing and excuses, but no one actually being fired for incompetence and negligence in the performance of their duties.”
“It’s indeed time for fresh leadership at the VA, but Americans are demanding more than the hollow gesture of the resignation of an undersecretary who already announced his departure last year. It’s time for Secretary Shinseki to follow suit and resign as well,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said. “His reticence to hold fellow bureaucrats at the VA accountable is exactly why we need new leadership that is willing to take swift action to ensure we are living up to our promises to our nations’ heroes.”