WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama announced Friday the had accepted VA Secretary Eric Shinseki's resignation "with considerable regret" after determining that the politics of the growing scandal at the department were becoming a distraction.
The announcement came amid mounting problems within the health care system for the nations military veterans. Speaking at the White House, Obama said Shinseki and Rob Nabors, a White House official the president has been temporarily assigned to work with the VA, had informed him earlier Friday that misconduct had taken place at VA facilities across the country, not just in Phoenix.
"This is totally unacceptable. All veterans deserve the best. They have earned it," Obama said. "Last week I said that if we found misconduct, it would be punished, and I meant it."
Obama said deputy director of the VA Sloan Gibson will take over as interim leader of the agency, and said the White House would work to quickly find a permanent successor.
Speaking to reporters, Obama said Shinseki, a retired four-star general, had reached the decision to resign, believing his leadership had become a distraction.
"He has worked hard to investigate and identify the problems with access to care," Obama said. "But as he told me this morning, the VA needs new leadership to address them. He does not want to be a distraction because his priority is to fix the problem and make sure our vets are getting the care that they need. That was Ric's judgment on behalf of his fellow veterans."
Obama said he agreed.
"We don't have time for distractions. We need to fix the problem."
Obama praised Shinseki for helping to reduce homelessness among veterans, improve services for female veterans and trim the VA's record backlog of disability claims. Shinseki helped enroll 2 million new veterans in health care and oversaw the rollout of the post-9/11 GI Bill, Obama said.
He is a very good man. I dont just mean that he is a very accomplished man, Obama said, adding that he has done exemplary work on the behalf of veterans. He has been a champion for our veterans, Obama said.
"Ric Shinseki has served his country with honor for nearly 50 years," Obama said. "He did two tours of combat in Vietnam. He's a veteran who left a part of himself on the battlefield. He rose to command the 1st Cavalry Division, served as Army chief of staff, and has never been afraid to speak truth to power."
Before resigning, Shinseki apologized Friday for the delayed treatment and other service lapses at VA hospitals that had prompted growing calls for him to step down.
Speaking at a conference in Washington on homeless vets, Shinseki acknowledged that the long waiting times and other problems at many VA health facilities across the country were more severe than hed originally realized.
We now know that VA has a systemic, totally unacceptable lack of integrity within some of our veterans health facilities, Shinseki said. That breach of integrity is irresponsible, it is indefensible and unacceptable to me.
Shinseki said aides had led him to believe the problems were isolated and limited to a relatively small number of VA hospitals and clinics.
Given the facts that I now know, I apologize as the senior leader of Veterans Affairs, Shinseki said.
Shinseki also announced the removal of leaders at a troubled VA hospital in Phoenix, where problems that began surfacing earlier this year led to revelations of lapses at other veterans health facilities in the country.
Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican who'd called for Shinseki to step down more than three weeks ago, welcomed the resignation.
"We now need accountability and true reform within the VA all across the country," Moran, a member of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, said in a statement. "For this to occur, we need a fresh perspective and a leader who is willing to shake up the VA's bureaucratic culture."
Moran urged Obama to nominate a new VA chief from outside the ranks of the veterans health system.