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4:05 pm
Fri May 30, 2014

VA Secretary Shinseki Steps Down Amid Reports Of Systemic Problems

Originally published on Fri May 30, 2014 6:07 pm

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Gen. Eric Shinseki is out as the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs. That comes after bipartisan calls for his resignation and growing outrage over scheduling from the VA health system. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Shinseki met with President Obama in the Oval Office this morning to brief him on a preliminary audit of the department. What that audit found is that the scheduling problems reported at the VA Medical Center in Phoenix were not isolated. Veterans all over America were waiting an excessively long time for appointments, and VA staff were covering it up.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: What they found is that the misconduct has not been limited to a few VA facilities, but many across the country.

KEITH: President Obama made these remarks in the press briefing room shortly after the meeting. The problem is systemic. At more than 60 percent of the facilities audited, staff reported at least one instance of manipulating the system in a way that would make wait times look shorter than they really were.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

OBAMA: It's totally unacceptable. Our veterans deserve the best. They've earned it. Last week, I said that if we found misconduct, it would be punished, and I meant it.

KEITH: And ultimately, that meant the secretary had to go.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

OBAMA: And few minutes ago, Sec. Shinseki offered me his own resignation. With considerable regret, I accepted.

KEITH: Obama went out of his way to say that he believes Shinseki is both a great man and a great leader. But all the calls for Shinseki's resignation had become a distraction. Earlier in the day, Shinseki addressed the problems at a meeting of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. He said he made the mistake of believing reports about patient wait times - reports he now knows were misleading.

(SOUNDBITE OF NATIONAL COALITION FOR HOMELESS VETERANS MEETING)

ERIC SHINSEKI: I can't explain the lack of integrity amongst some of the leaders of our healthcare facilities.

KEITH: He said it was something he rarely encountered in 30 years in uniform.

(SOUNDBITE OF NATIONAL COALITION FOR HOMELESS VETERANS MEETING)

SHINSEKI: And so I will not defend it because it is indefensible. But I can take responsibility for it, and I do.

KEITH: President Obama added to those remarks.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

OBAMA: You know, he described to me the fact that, when he was in theater, he might have to order an attack just based on a phone call from some 20-something-year-old corporal. And he's got to trust that he's getting good information, and it's life or death.

KEITH: It seems stateside, in a multibillion-dollar system serving millions of veterans a year, that same level of trust was misplaced.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

OBAMA: I think he is deeply disappointed in the fact that bad news did not get to him and that the structures weren't in place for him to identify this problem quickly and fix it. His priority now is to make sure that happens. And he felt like new leadership would be - would serve our veterans best. And I agree with him.

KEITH: Shinseki will be replaced on an interim basis by Sloan Gibson, who has a long career in the private sector and nonprofits, and who became deputy secretary at the VA just three months ago. And the search is now on for a permanent replacement who can be confirmed quickly by the Senate. Reaction from Congress came in fast, with many describing Shinseki's resignation as a good first step. House Speaker John Boehner.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)

REPRESENTITIVE JOHN BOEHNER: And until the president outlines a vision and an effective plan for addressing the broad dysfunction at the VA, today's announcement really changes nothing. One personnel change cannot be used as an excuse to paper over a systemic problem.

KEITH: Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said much the same thing. And in the coming weeks, Congress, too, will have to reckon with the VA's shortcomings and its role in enabling, and now working to fix, the problems. Tamara Keith, NPR News. The White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.