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Eric Shinseki is out! Obama sacks Veterans Affairs secretary

- The Washington Times - Friday, May 30, 2014

President Obama accepted the resignation Friday of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, amid a burgeoning scandal over delayed care for veterans at VA hospitals.

In a hastily arranged statement after meeting with Mr. Shinseki at the White House, the president said he accepted the resignation "with considerable regret" and admitted that the decision was partly political.

The president said Mr. Shinseki told him "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," the president told reporters. "We've also got to deal with Congress and you guys."

The president said VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson, who has been in his post only three months, will take over on an interim basis.

The scandal became public several weeks ago, but the calls for Mr. Shinseki's resignation among Democrats began in earnest Wednesday when a VA Inspector General's report that showed the scope of the problem at the VA hospital in Phoenix had affected about 1,700 veterans.

On Friday morning, Mr. Shinseki and deputy White House chief of staff Rob Nabors delivered more bad news to Mr. Obama in a meeting in the Oval Office: They confirmed the problems affect VA facilities nationwide. Mr. Shinseki then offered his resignation.

"The misconduct has not been limited to a few VA facilities, but many across the country — totally unacceptable," Mr. Obama said a few minutes after his Cabinet member quit.

The president said Mr. Shinseki had already begun to fire "many of the people responsible," including senior leaders at the Phoenix VA.

"He's canceled any possible performance bonuses this year for VHA senior executives, and he has ordered the VA to personally contact every veteran in Phoenix waiting for appointments to get them the care that they need and that they deserve," the president said.

Despite Mr. Obama's protestations that he and Mr. Shinseki were unaware of the scope of the problems, the preliminary IG report on Wednesday noted that there have been 18 government reports since 2005 highlighting delays of service at VA facilities. White House press secretary Jay Carney said the alleged efforts by some VA officials to conceal the delays contributed to the lack of awareness by the president and his Cabinet.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, praised Mr. Shinseki, a Vietnam veteran, for a "lifetime of honorable service." But he said the resignation was fitting because the problems at the VA are a "national disgrace."

"This change of leadership is a meaningful initial step to meet our solemn obligations, but what's still needed is an agreement by the president and his allies in Congress to join Republicans in legislation that would help to fix this system that has so failed our veterans," Mr. McConnell said.

As he has in several past failures of competence in his administration, Mr. Obama vented frustration that the "bad news" about wait times at VA hospitals had not reached him sooner.

"This was not something that we were hearing when I was traveling around the country, the particular issue of scheduling [hospital appointments]," Mr. Obama said. "I'm going to be interested in finding out ... how is it that in a number of these facilities, if in fact you have veterans who are waiting too long for an appointment, that that information didn't surface sooner, so that we could go ahead and fix it."

He said he wants a "VA as a whole that makes sure that bad news gets surfaced quickly, so that things can be fixed."

Asked if he's responsible for the problems, Mr. Obama said, "I always take responsibility for whatever happens" in his administration. But he also said the VA's problem "predates my presidency."

"The VA is a big organization that has had problems for a very long time," he said.

It was the second time this spring that Mr. Obama has replaced a Cabinet member amid a scandal over basic government competence. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius departed in April after months of controversy over the botched rollout of the Obamacare website.

The VA scandal began last month when a whistleblower revealed that veterans were being placed on a "secret wait list" at the Phoenix VA facility that almost guaranteed they would not receive timely care. The initial report caused a handful of GOP lawmakers to call for Mr. Shinseki to step down.

A preliminary investigator general report released Wednesday, however, substantiated many of the claims and opened the floodgates, with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle demanding the retired four-star general step down immediately.

The report found that 1,700 veterans at the Phoenix facility had never been placed on the official electronic wait list, meaning their wait time couldn't be tracked and they likely would not see a doctor. This delay in care and manipulation of data was systemic, stretching across the entire VA system, according to the report. More than 40 facilities across the country are under investigation, the report said.

Prior to his resignation, almost 120 lawmakers — 38 of whom were Democrats — had called for Mr. Shinseki to step down.

While the president was initially supportive of his Cabinet chief, Mr. Obama's faith in Mr. Shinseki appeared to wane after the report was released. In a press conference Thursday, Mr. Carney said Mr. Obama was anxiously awaiting results of an internal VA audit due early next month that will give a sense for how widespread the problems are at the embattled department.

"When he receives the internal audit, he'll be able to evaluate those findings," Mr. Carney told reporters at the White House, backing away from previous expressions of support. "I'm just not going to speculate more about personnel."

Mr. Shinseki was sworn in as the secretary of veterans affairs in 2009. Prior to that, he served as the Army Chief of Staff and leader of the Army during Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom, according to his VA bio. The West Point Graduate was awarded two Purple Hearts and three Bronze Stars with valor during his almost 40-year military career.

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said the resignation amounted to "musical chairs" at the VA.

"Regardless of who the president wants running his department, it's past time for the president to step up and fix this mess," Mr. Priebus said in a statement. "He can start by calling on Harry Reid and his Senate Democrats to pass the bipartisan bill for accountability at the VA."

Pete Hegseth, CEO of Concerned Veterans for America, said Mr. Shinseki's resignation "doesn't solve the widespread, systemic problems" at VA.

"This is only the beginning. We need both reforms and a reformer," he said.

It was the second time this spring that Mr. Obama has replaced a Cabinet member amid a scandal over basic government competence. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius departed in April after months of controversy over the botched rollout of the Obamacare website.

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