President Obama announced Friday that embattled Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki would take the fall for the rapidly growing scandal over veterans' health care, accepting his resignation under pressure from members of both parties.
The president announced that Shinseki would resign after they met at the White House and he received an update on an internal review of the problems at the VA. The review showed the problems were not limited to just a few facilities, Obama said, adding: "It's totally unacceptable. Our veterans deserve the best."
On the heels of those and other findings, Obama said, "Secretary Shinseki offered me his own resignation -- with considerable regret, I accepted."
He said Shinseki told him he did not want to be a distraction. "I agree," Obama said. "We don't have time for distractions. We need to fix the problem."
The president had faced mounting calls from members of both parties to remove Shinseki; those calls accelerated after a damning inspector general report on Wednesday. Shinseki suffered another blow on Friday when Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., a former top VA official, called for her former boss' resignation.
Shinseki's departure is likely to calm the political storm, but only briefly. Congressional critics of VA leadership voiced support for the decision on Friday, but urged the administration to quickly get to the root of the problems with VA workers lying about patient wait times.
"VA's problems are deadly serious, and whomever the next secretary may be, they will receive no grace period from America's veterans, American taxpayers and Congress," Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said in a statement.
House Speaker John Boehner said the resignation "does not absolve the president." The resignation also has not muted calls for the Justice Department to launch a criminal probe.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said in a joint statement that they would continue to push a bill providing resources for such a probe. "This scandal has dragged on over a decade. We believe the Department of Justice should begin investigations right away," they said.
The president, who for weeks stood by Shinseki as the allegations of wrongdoing mounted, said it was Shinseki's own judgment that he'd be a distraction that changed his mind. The president said Sloan Gibson, deputy VA secretary, would be named acting VA secretary while the administration seeks a permanent replacement.
In his farewell message to staff, Shinseki touted "significant and lasting progress in expanding access" for veterans over the last several years, while acknowledging "there is more work to be done."
Earlier Friday morning, Shinseki publicly apologized for the failures in the VA system. Responding to an interim inspector general report which found "systemic" problems with clinics misrepresenting patient wait times, Shinseki also announced he would oust senior leaders at the Phoenix VA, where allegations of improper scheduling practices first surfaced.
Shinseki, speaking to advocates for homeless veterans, said he initially believed the problems were "limited and isolated."
"I no longer believe that. It is systemic," Shinseki said. "I will not defend it, because it is indefensible."
Even before his meeting with the president, the secretary's tone shifted dramatically compared with his testimony before a congressional committee earlier this month, when he continued to defend the VA system. On Friday, citing the IG report, he lamented a "totally unacceptable lack of integrity" at numerous VA facilities -- where reviews have found workers were manipulating wait times to make their internal figures look good.
Shinseki said the "lack of integrity" is something he has "rarely encountered." He announced several steps to address the situation, including directing that patient wait times no longer be used as a measure of success in employee evaluations.
The internal audit reviewed by Obama on Friday outlined additional problems, including findings that VA staff were pressured to use improper practices. The report said in some cases, "pressures were placed on schedulers to utilize inappropriate practices in order to make Waiting Times appear more favorable."
The report said the practices were "pervasive" enough to "require VA re-examine its entire Performance Management system."