By Justin Sink - 05/30/14 11:24 AM EDT
Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned Friday as the White House sought to take steps to control a widening controversy.
President Obama cast the widely expected resignation as Shinseki's decision, saying the former four-star general told him during a meeting in the Oval Office he did not want to be a distraction as the department worked to respond to systematic management issues.
Obama said Sloan Gibson, the deputy secretary at the VA, will take over the department in an acting capacity, and that the White House was looking “diligently” for a new, permanent head.
More than 100 members of Congress, including nearly a dozen Senate Democrats, had called for Shinseki's removal. Lawmakers were outraged by a preliminary inspector general report released earlier this week that suggested as many as 42 veterans facilities may have been falsifying patient records and delaying care.
Before meeting with Obama, Shinseki apologized for problems at the VA that he said were more widespread than he had initially realized.
He described doctored waiting lists that seemed to hide the long waits veterans endured for treatment as “irresponsible" and "indefensible."
“I also offer that apology to members of Congress who have supported me, to veteran service organizations who have been my partners for five years, and to the American people,” Shinseki said. “All of them, all of them deserve better from the VA.”
The president conceded that there were political calculations in his decision to accept Shinseki's resignation.
Most of the Democrats calling for Shinseki’s resignation are up for reelection this year, highlighting concerns the VA controversy could play out on the campaign trail.
“We occupy not just an environment that calls for management fixes. We've also got to deal with Congress and [the press,]" Obama said. "And I think Eric's judgment that he could not carry out the next stages of reform without being a distraction himself — and so, you know, my assessment was, unfortunately, that he was right.”
He added he did not want the head of the department to be dealing with speculation about his future while trying to fix problems with VA management.
“At this stage what I want is someone at the VA who is not spending time outside of solving problems for the veterans,” Obama said.
Almost immediately after the announcement, both Democrats and Republicans released statements saying that Shinseki’s removal would not end the problems at the VA.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said the personnel changes amounted to little more than "musical chairs."
“While we are eager to see the President finally engaging on this issue, this has never been about a single person or a single resignation,” Priebus said. “We now know that thousands of veterans haven’t gotten the treatment they were owed, languished on false wait lists, and were simply denied access to care when it was inconvenient—all so this administration could pretend they were reducing wait times.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called the move a “meaningful first step” but said the White House should endorse Senate legislation giving VA leadership greater ability to fire senior executives.
Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), an Iraq War veteran and former assistant secretary of Veterans Affairs, said that Shinseki's resignation was the right decision. While she acknowledged that the systemic problems existed before Shinseki's tenure, she said the VA needed new leadership.
“The problems have definitely been there long term. I personally watched him [Shinseki] try to put in many measures and procedures to fix the issues,” said Duckworth, who lost both legs while serving in the Iraq War.
But, she said, “I think right now we just need fresh eyes to come in.”
Veterans groups who had called for Shinseki's resignation applauded his departure, but stressed that the systematic problems needed to still be addressed.
“Ultimately, a change in leadership does not address the root of the VA health care system’s problems of access and appropriate funding levels,” said Disabled American Veterans National Commander Joseph Johnston in a statement.
Earlier, Shinseki said he had begun the process to remove officials at a Phoenix facility where dozens of veterans reportedly died waiting for care. Patients had to wait more than 100 days to book appointments with their primary care physicians.
Shinseki said he had been too trusting of subordinates, and vowed to take responsibility.
“I was too trusting of some, and I accepted as accurate reports that I now know to be misleading with regard to patient wait times,” he said.
White House deputy chief of staff Rob Nabors, who was dispatched to examine Shinseki's leadership and procedures at the VA, will remain there temporarily to assist Gibson.
The White House also said senior Veterans Affairs executives would not receive performance bonuses, and that the VA would work to contact every veteran in Phoenix waiting for medical care.
“There are then going to be some broader issues that we’re going to have to tackle,” Obama said. “The information systems inside the VHA, those are probably going to have to be changed. That will cost some money. That will take some time and will have to be implemented.”
Obama declined to say whether he believed there had been criminal wrongdoing within the department, but said there was a need for a “change of culture” within the department.
—This story was updated at 12:25 p.m.