President Obama announced Friday morning that Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki will step down in the wake of a wait-list scandal that his engulfed his department and lead more than 100 members of Congress to seek his resignation.
"Ric's commitment to our veterans is unquestioned. … I am grateful for his service, as are many veterans across the country," Obama said, using Shinseki's nickname. "He 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. He does not want to be a distraction because his priority is to fix the problem to make sure vets get the care they need. That was Ric's judgment on behalf of his fellow veterans. I agree. We don't have time for distractions. We need to fix the problem."
Obama on Shinseki
Obama said that the White House will soon begin a search for Shinseki's replacement, but that Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs Sloan Gibson will serve as acting secretary in the interim.
Shinseki and Obama met in the Oval Office just after 10:30 a.m. to discuss the secretary's internal audit of his department.
Obama's statement comes just hours after Shinseki apologized, but defended his record, in a speech before the National Council of Homeless Veterans this morning. A defiant Shinseki said that he would fire senior officials at the Phoenix Health Care System, where the scandal originated, and withhold bonuses for leaders at the department this year, but added that "leadership and integrity problems can and must be fixed," presumably with him at the helm.
Gen. Shinseki is "a good person who's done exemplary work on our behalf," Obama said Friday, "and under his leadership, we have seen more progress on more fronts at the VA and a bigger investment in the VA than just about any other VA secretary."
Shinseki also told House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday that the inspector general, who is investigating incidents of veterans waiting months for care across the country, that no further leadership changes should be made until the investigation has been resolved.
After the president's announcement, Pelosi said in a statement that "the departure of Secretary Shinseki will not solve the systemic challenges within the VA" and called the general "a leader, a hero, and a public servant of great valor and great sacrifice."
Sen. Bernie Sanders, chair of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, said in a statement that Shinseki is "an American hero" and that he is "sad that he resigned." Rep. Jeff Miller, chair of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, said in a statement that Gen. Shinseki "is taking the brunt of the blame for these problems, but he is not the only one within VA who bears responsibility" and that "whomever the next secretary may be, they will receive no grace period from America's veterans, American taxpayers and Congress."
Speaker John Boehner, who resisted joining in calls for Shinseki's resignation, told reporters Friday that, "today's announcement really changes nothing" and put the onus on President Obama to make big changes at the VA. "One personnel change should not be used as an excuse to paper over a systemic problem," he said.
Boehner went on to call on Obama to urge the VA to participate more fully in the House's investigation into the matter and called on the Senate to take up the House-passed VA Management Accountability Act, which would give Acting Secretary Sloan Gibson greater ability to fire senior officials within the department. The Senate has its own version of the bill, sponsored by Sanders, which Shinseki endorsed before handing in his resignation Friday morning.
The IG released an interim report on Wednesday showing that 1,700 veterans in Phoenix remain on waiting lists there and that, on average, those who were seen waited 115 days for an initial appointment. That announcement lead more than 100 members of Congress to call for Shinseki's resignation, including at least 40 Democrats.
With Shinseki out, Obama no longer has an Asian-American serving in a top position in his cabinet, following the departures of former Energy Secretary Steven Chu, former Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and former Cabinet Secretary Chris Lu, who now serves as the Deputy Secretary of Labor.
Although he said that he agreed with Shinseki's view that the secretary should step down, Obama defended his own record on veterans issues, arguing that the current problems with scheduling were not known until recently. But he also argued of overall problems at the VA that "this predates my presidency."
"I can say confidently is that this has been a priority. It's been a priority reflected in my budget. and that in terms of managing the VA, where we have seen a problem and where we have been aware of a problem, we have gone after it and fixed it and have been able to make significant progress. But what is absolutely clear is this one, this issue of scheduling is one that the reporting systems inside of the VA did not surface to the level where Ric was aware of it or we were able to see it. This was not something we were hearing when I was traveling around the country," Obama said.
Obama denied that Shinseki's resignation was politically-motivated, but said that his continued service would be a "distraction." Obama said that he wants a VA Secretary to be focused wholly on solving problems within the department, "not how are they getting second-guessed and speculation about their futures and so forth and so on and that's what Ric agreed to as well."
This post has been updated with statements from congressional leaders.