WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - Embattled Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Eric Shinseki, facing calls for his ouster by lawmakers and veterans groups, resigned on Friday after taking responsibility for a healthcare scandal over delays in medical care for US veterans.
President Barack Obama said he accepted the resignation of the soft-spoken, 71-year-old retired Army general after being briefed on the initial findings of the investigation into abuses that were initially found in Phoenix but later identified at other facilities across the country.
"A few minutes ago, Secretary Shinseki offered me his own resignation. With considerable regret, I accepted," the president told a news conference, praising Shinseki's military career and accomplishments at the VA, including tackling issues like post-traumatic stress syndrome and homelessness among veterans.
"Ric's commitment to our veterans is unquestioned. His service to our country is exemplary," Obama said. "He has 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."
The care delay scandal, with inspector general probes now active at 42 VA locations around the country, has put Obama and his Democrats on the defensive ahead of the November congressional elections. Republicans have attacked the administration over the problems, saying it was an example of mismanagement.
Dozens of Democrats, including several senators in tight re-election races, had called for Shinseki to resign following release of the report this week confirming scheduling abuses in Phoenix. Many Republicans were also calling for his ouster and several veterans groups expressed lack of confidence in Shinseki's ability to fix the problems.
Obama said Sloan Gibson, deputy secretary of the VA, would take the helm at the agency on an acting basis while he looked"diligently" for a new permanent VA secretary.
Shinseki's resignation came just hours after he addressed the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans and apologised to veterans, lawmakers and the American people for the abuses, in which administrators manipulated waiting lists to hide exactly how long patients had to wait to see a physician.
Shinseki announced the steps the VA would take to deal with the corrupt practices found at some of its healthcare facilities.
He said he was removing the senior leaders at the Phoenix VA medical centre and would use all authority at his disposal to hold accountable those "who instigated or tolerated dishonourable or irresponsible scheduling".
Shinseki said no senior executives of the Veterans Health Administration would receive performance awards this year and the use of scheduling times as a measure of good performance would be eliminated.
The VA is also taking action to ensure that the 1,700 Phoenix veterans still waiting to see a doctor would have appointments quickly, he said.
"We now know that VA has a systemic, totally unacceptable lack of integrity within some of our veterans health facilities," Shinseki said. "That breach of integrity is irresponsible, it is indefensible and unacceptable to me."