WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama accepted the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki on Friday, hours after the beleaguered retired general apologized and accepted responsibility for the health care scandal that turned his agency into a political war zone.
Shinseki was scheduled to meet with the president to discuss how to deal with the agency’s failures to provide health care for veterans in a timely manner and efforts to keep the names of hundreds of veterans off official lists to hide that they were not being served.
But, speaking to reporters after the session, Obama announced Shinseki offered his resignation and that the president had accepted it “with considerable regret.” Shinseki said the VA needed new leadership to address the problems and the former general didn’t want to be a distraction.
“I agree,” Obama said. “We don’t have time for distractions. We need to fix the problem.
“I said we have to do better, and we will,” the president said at the White House.
Sloan Gibson, a West Point graduate who served as an Army infantry officer and is the VA’s deputy secretary, will take over as acting secretary, the president announced. Gibson is a former banker and former president and chief executive of the United Services Organizations.
Shinseki had been on thin political ice for days, and his departure had seemed to be a political inevitability. The retired four-star general, whom Obama appointed to lead the VA in 2009, had asked for patience while the allegations were being investigated. But a scathing report by the department’s inspector general, released Wednesday, found systemic problem at VA facilities nationwide.
The report sparked immediate outrage on Capitol Hill, leading to new calls from not only congressional Republicans but also Democrats — especially those up for re-election — for Shinseki to step down. More than 125 members of Congress, including 42 Democrats, advocated for Shinseki to resign or be replaced.
“After weeks of muted reactions and tepid responses, I’m glad to see the president and Secretary Shinseki have heeded our calls for new leadership at the VA. As a decorated service member, Secretary Shinseki served his country well but his time at the VA has been marked by gross inefficiencies and mismanagement,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. “President Obama must quickly nominate someone from outside the broken bureaucracy of the VA to implement immediate changes focused on providing our veterans with the care they deserve.”
The 71-year-old former Army chief of staff, who held the VA secretary’s job longer than any of his predecessors, was widely admired for a 38-year military career that cost him half of his foot in Vietnam.
Shinseki took a number of actions in response to the reports of mismanagement, including placing three officials from the Phoenix VA on administrative leave and moving to offer veterans who endured waits of more than 30 days for appointments the option of seeking private care at the department’s expense.
But lawmakers from both parties grew impatient as the investigation grew to 42 VA facilities, up from the previously reported 26. Critics argued the VA needed a fresh face at the top to restore confidence in the department, which operates 1,700 hospitals and clinics handling 85 million appointments a year.
“As the chair of the Veteran Affairs and Military Installations Committee in the Texas Senate, I will continue to work with local, state and federal leaders to ensure Texas veterans receive the care they earned — and so rightly deserve — with their service,” said state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio. “I thank Secretary Shinseki for his service, but his resignation alone, by no means, has solved this problem. The bottom line is this: Hopefully, Washington can turn away from finger pointing and earnestly begin to work to fix this broken system of care. Now, Texas will take the lead to best fill in their gaps.”
Earlier Friday, in his first public appearance to discuss the crisis since the VA inspector general’s report was released, Shinseki acknowledged the problems in his agency were systemic.
He said he earlier thought the difficulties were an isolated problem at the Phoenix VA hospital, but that he now realized they were broader and accepted responsibility for them.
“I was too trusting of some,” Shinseki told a conference on homeless veterans. “I can’t explain the lack of integrity among some of the leaders of our health care facilities. This is something I rarely encountered during 38 years in uniform.
“I will not defend it because it is indefensible. But I can take responsibility for it, and I do,” he said. “Given the facts I now know, I apologize as the senior leader of the Department of Veterans Affairs.”
Herald Military Editor Rose L. Thayer and the Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.