The head of Veteran Affairs Health Care resigned Friday following allegations that scheduling delays had led to 40 deaths at an Arizona VA hospital.
Dr. Robert Petzel, undersecretary for VA health care, issued his resignation after it was requested by Veterans Affair Secretary Eric Shinseki, who is similarly under pressure to resign from members of Congress and veterans service organizations.
Petzel and Shinseki testified before a Senate panel to answer questions about the Phoenix VA hospital and other problems plaguing the VA system to include the massive disability claims backlog. The two VA leaders received blistering criticism not only from lawmakers on Thursday, but from veterans' advocates that have historically defended the VA.
"As we know from the veteran community, most veterans are satisfied with the quality of their VA health care, but we must do more to improve timely access to that care," Shinseki said in a statement. "I am committed to strengthening Veterans' trust and confidence in their VA healthcare system. I thank Dr. Petzel for his four decades of service to Veterans."
But Petzel's departure is viewed by some as theater, something to mollify the department's critics, since he said last September he would retire in 2014. President Obama nominated his successor on May 1.
"Dr. Petzel was already scheduled to retire this year, so his resignation now really won't make that much of a difference," American Legion National Commander Daniel Dellinger said in a statement. The Legion last week called for the resignations of Shinseki, Petzel and Under Secretary for Benefits Allison Hickey, and Dellinger reiterated that on Friday.
Shinseki and Hickey "remain on the job," he said. "They are both part of VA's leadership problem, and we want them to resign as soon as possible. This isn't personal. VA needs a fundamental shift in leadership if it is to defeat its systemic lack of accountability."
Officials with the Veterans of Foreign Wars and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America also pointed out that Petzel was on his way out the door anyway.
"We don't need the VA to find a scapegoat. We need an actual plan to restore a culture of accountability throughout the VA," IAVA Chief Policy Officer Tom Tarantino said.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., who chairs the House Veterans Affairs Committee, called Petzel's resignation "the pinnacle of disingenuous political doublespeak."
"Characterizing this as a ‘resignation' just doesn't pass the smell test," he said. "VA has resorted to what it does best, splitting semantic hairs to create the illusion of accountability and progress."
Petzel did not say when he announced in September exactly when he would retire, except it would be in 2014. A VA statement said he would "remain in the job until the Senate confirms a successor."
A VA official speaking on background said there was no way to know how long Petzel would have stayed on if Shinseki had not asked for his resignation. His nominated successor, Dr. Jeffrey A. Murawsky, currently the network director of the Veterans Integrated Service Network 12, could have been held up in the Senate as past Obama nominees have been.
Most veterans' organizations have not demanded VA resignations. But they have been up front about their frustration and disappointment with the VA over a series of controversies. These complaints include claims that hospital officials are gaming the appointment scheduling system, the disability claims backlog, and instances of unsanitary equipment being used in colonoscopies.
Congress and veterans groups also have been upset over top managers receiving thousands of dollars in bonuses, even when their facilities have had significant problems.
-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org