Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, who has led the embattled veterans agency since 2009, resigned Friday over widespread and systemic cover-ups of waiting times at VA hospitals.
The four-star general, who clashed with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld over troop levels in Iraq and lost, offered his resignation to President Barack Obama after apologizing at a homeless veterans conference. Obama accepted and called him “a very good man” and called his apology “a truly remarkable action.”
“He doesn’t want to be distracting,” Obama told reporters in the White House briefing room. “That was Ric’s judgment,” he said, “and I agree. We don’t have time for distractions.”
“I regret that he has to resign under these circumstances,” Obama said.
Shinseki’s resignation comes after mounting calls for him to step down. As of Friday morning, 119 members of Congress from both parties said they wanted him to go, including Rep. Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat from Illinois who was wounded in Iraq and served in a top post at the VA.
At the annual conference for the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans earlier in the morning, Shinseki mentioned “the elephant in the room” and issued a public apology over allegations that employees covered up long wait times at the Phoenix VA hospital, possibly leading to the deaths of at least 40 veterans. The scandal has now spread to 42 hospitals across the country.
Shinseki made it clear that he was lied to by his top officials. “I was too trusting of some, and I accepted as accurate reports that I now know to have been misleading with regard to patient wait times,” he said. ”I can’t explain the lack of integrity among some of the leaders of our health care facilities. This is something I rarely encounter during 38 years in uniform and so I will not defend it because it’s indefensible, but I can take responsibility for it and I do.”
Obama said Shinseki is “deeply disappointed that bad news didn’t get to him.”
As his last task before resigning, Shinseki announced several actions the VA is taking to fix the problem. He fired the senior leadership at the Phoenix VA and revoked all bonuses for 2014. Wait times will no longer be tied to performance reviews. And Shinseki threw his support behind a bill that would give the VA secretary more power to fire senior employees.
Shinseki called the wait list scandal “indefensible” and admitted that the problem is widespread. “I said when this situation began weeks to months ago and I thought the problem was limited and isolated because I believed that. I no longer believe that. It is systemic,” he said.
Obama said he would “leave it up to the Justice Department” to determine whether any criminal charges will be filed against any VA employees.
Sloan Gibson, the former head of the USO and Shinseki’s deputy, will act as VA secretary until a permanent replacement is found.