VA Official Who Takes the Fall Was Already Set to Retire This Year

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.”