WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama announced on Friday that he had accepted Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki’s offer of resignation after determining that the political furor surrounding the growing VA scandal had become a distraction.
“We don’t have time for distractions,” Obama said. “We need to fix the problem.”
The president was under mounting pressure this week from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to let Shinseki go after the number of VA health care facilities under investigation for manipulating patient wait-time data jumped from 26 to 42. The news underscored the nationwide scope of the crisis.
Shinseki and Rob Nabors, a White House official the president temporarily assigned to work with the VA, confirmed to Obama in a meeting Friday morning that their own audit had found misconduct at more than 60 percent of 216 VA clinics and hospitals across the country.
“This is totally unacceptable,” Obama said at a press conference afterward. “All veterans deserve the best. They have earned it. Last week I said that if we found misconduct, it would be punished, and I meant it.”
The president stopped short of blaming Shinseki for the VA’s woes, which predated the retired four-star general’s tenure. He said he accepted Shinseki’s resignation “with considerable regret.”
Shinseki was frustrated that the manipulation of scheduling data and delays in medical care at VA facilities didn’t get reported up the chain of command, Obama said.
“I think that’s the thing that offended Secretary Shinseki the most during the course of this process,” the president said. “I think he’s deeply disappointed in the fact that bad news did not get to him. And that the structures weren’t in place for him to identify this problem quickly and fix it.”
While Obama asserted Friday that the scheduling problems at VA were “not something we were aware of” until recently, more than a decade’s worth of reports from the VA’s own inspector general and the Government Accountability Office identified the issue repeatedly in dozens of audits, as well as in testimony before Congress.
Even before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the VA couldn’t meet the agency’s 30-day appointment standard, the GAO reported in 2001. The report said that “excessive waiting times for outpatient care have been a long-standing problem.” Waiting times ranged from 33 days at one urology clinic to 282 days at an optometry clinic.
Since then, numerous other GAO reports and a total of 18 audits by the VA Office of Inspector General documented scheduling irregularities similar to those reported last month at the Phoenix VA Health Care System, where 40 veterans on a secret wait list allegedly died waiting for care.
The reports found VA schedulers kept “informal waiting lists” and routinely entered the wrong requested appointment dates into the system, making wait times appear shorter than patients actually experienced.
Auditors blamed inconsistent training and high turnover of VA’s 50,000 schedulers, an outdated computer system and a lack of staff dedicated to answering telephones. The VA pledged to fix the problem, but last year another GAO study reported that VA schedulers still were not reporting patients’ desired appointment dates correctly.
The author of that study, Debra Draper, testified about her findings before Congress on March 6, 2013.
The VA’s “ability to ensure and accurately monitor access to timely medical appointments is critical to ensuring quality health care to veterans, who may have medical conditions that worsen if access is delayed,” she told lawmakers.
Tom Tarantino, policy director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said one reason Obama and Shinseki could claim they didn’t know the full extent of problems at VA facilities lies in financial incentives for hospital and clinic heads to cover them up.
“The problem is that people at the VA think it’s OK to lie to their headquarters and it’s OK to lie to their patients so they can get their bonus money,” Tarantino said. “They’ve been getting away with it for a very long time.”
The new VA secretary’s top priorities should be cutting wait times for treatment, reducing the backlog of disability claims and helping stem the rising number of veteran suicides, Tarantino said.
“People are waiting too long to get the care they’ve earned,” he said. “Once you get into the system, the care is actually quite good, but there are a lot of problems with access.”
Tarantino said the new agency chief needs to be more dynamic than Shinseki and must have stronger support from Obama for real change.
“It needs to be someone who is able to communicate not just to vets, but to the American people what the VA is doing,” Tarantino said. “Shinseki’s biggest failure was that he was largely invisible. The secretary of veterans affairs for all intents and purposes needs to be the face of veterans care in this country.”
Obama defended Shinseki’s commitment to veterans on Friday as “unquestioned” and praised him for helping to reduce veteran homelessness, improve services for women veterans and cut back on the VA’s record backlog of disability claims.
Shinseki helped enroll 2 million new veterans in VA health care and oversaw the roll-out of the post-9/11 GI Bill, Obama said.
“His service to our country is exemplary,” Obama said. “I am grateful for his service, as are many veterans across the country. He has worked hard to investigate and identify the problems with access to care, but as he told me this morning, the VA needs new leadership to address them.”
VA Deputy Director Sloan Gibson, a U.S. Military Academy graduate who joined the department just three months ago, will take the reins as acting VA secretary until a permanent replacement can be found. Gibson most recently served as CEO of the USO.
“I do think it’s up to the president now to replace him with someone who is actually going to do something to fix this,” Jeff Hensley, a former Navy fighter pilot and Iraq veteran from Frisco, Texas, told McClatchy. “As a veteran myself, I’d like to see someone who fought in Iraq or Afghanistan.”
Jimmy Wehrle, a 91-year-old World War II veteran from Carmichael, Calif., whose monthly $1,000 pension was cut without warning, said the new VA chief should fire most of the agency’s lawyers and replace its civilian workers with former service members who better understand the needs of veterans.
“Here it is the end of the month and I’m trying to pay the bills, but I haven’t got the money to pay them,” Wehrle said. “When you get World War II veterans to wait on answers, you’re waiting for them to die.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the recent firing of senior officials at the VA hospital in Phoenix was a good first step toward broader reforms in the agency.
“I will do everything I can to ensure that the Congress works to address the root causes of these systematic problems so that the men and women returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan, and those veterans already in the VA system, receive the care they deserve,” the Nevada Democrat said in a statement.
Republicans on Friday quickly turned the focus of their criticism from Shinseki to Obama. House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio said Shinseki’s resignation doesn’t absolve the president of responsibility.
“Until the president outlines a vision and an effective plan for addressing the broad dysfunction at the VA, today’s announcement really changes nothing,” Boehner said in a statement. “One personnel change cannot be used as an excuse to paper over a systemic problem.”
Boehner added that Republican lawmakers will “hold the president accountable until he makes things right.”
Obama suggested Friday that the VA’s troubles might be rooted in a lack of resources, and he said that Congress may need to increase funding to the agency.
Obama campaigned on improving VA services and has long pushed for higher spending for the agency. During his presidency, the VA budget jumped 68 percent, from $91 billion in 2008 to $153.8 in 2014.
Obama asked Congress for a record $163.9 billion for the VA in 2015.
But veteran service organizations say Obama’s 2015 budget proposal for the VA still falls at least $2 billion short _ and they complain that the VA hasn’t wisely spent the money it’s been given so far. They say it needs to hire more primary medical care providers to serve a surge of 1.4 million new patients in the last five years.
Obama agreed Friday with the need to hire more doctors and nurses.
“And that’s going to cost some money, which means that’s going to have to be reflected in a veterans affairs budget,” he said. “Even during fiscally tight times, there’s been no area where I’ve put more priority than making sure that we’re delivering the kind of budget that’s necessary to make sure our veterans are being served, but it may still not be enough.”
Amy Chance of The Sacramento Bee contributed.