Amid the exploding scandal over veterans’ health care, Veterans Affairs Department Secretary Eric Shinseki has announced the resignation of the department’s third-highest ranking official – but Shinseki, who was appointed to his position by President Obama in 2009, failed to mention one important detail:
VA Undersecretary for Health Dr. Robert Petzel had already announced his plans to retire eight months ago – in September 2013.
Still, the mainstream media went viral with news of Petzel’s resignation late Friday.
“Today, I accepted the resignation of Dr. Robert Petzel, undersecretary for health in the Department of Veterans Affairs,” Shinseki said in a statement cited by Reuters.
“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.
The White House released a statement Friday evening on Petzel’s resignation. It stated:
“Today Secretary Shinseki accepted the resignation of Dr. Robert Petzel, Under Secretary for Health in the Department of Veterans Affairs. The President supports Secretary Shinseki’s decision. As the President has said, America has a sacred trust with the men and women who have served our country in uniform and he is committed to doing all we can to ensure our veterans have access to timely, quality health care. He has asked Secretary Shinseki to conduct a review of Veterans Health Administration practices and procedures at its facilities nationwide to ensure better access to care, and that review is ongoing. This review is one of the many steps the Department of Veterans Affairs is taking to ensure our veterans have confidence in and access to the care and benefits they have earned and deserve. The President and Secretary Shinseki take the allegations around misconduct very seriously, and Secretary Shinseki has committed to taking appropriate actions based on the findings of the independent VA Office of Inspector General investigation. Both the President and the Secretary thank Dr. Petzel for his many years of service to veterans.”
But WND located a Sept. 20, 2013, VA news release announcing Petzel had already planned to retire this year. The retirement announcement is located at the bottom of this report.
“Following a 40-year career serving Veterans as a VA physician, teacher, and administrator, Dr. Robert A. Petzel, will retire in 2014 as planned, following a four-year tenure as Under Secretary for Health,” the release stated.
In 2013, Shinseki said, “I am grateful for Dr. Petzel’s distinguished service to veterans spanning four decades, and for his leadership in transforming VHA’s health care delivery system to better care for Veterans. Dr. Petzel has assured me that he will continue to serve in his position until the Senate confirms a new Under Secretary for Health, in order to ensure a smooth transition.”
In fact, the White House announced May 1 that Obama was nominating Jeffrey Murawsky as Petzel’s successor.
A leading veterans’ right group said Petzel’s so-called “resignation” does little to correct the problems in the department.
“We don’t need the VA to find a scapegoat; we need an actual plan to restore a culture of accountability throughout the VA,” the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America said in a statement.
“To be clear, Dr. Petzel’s resignation is not the step toward accountability that our members need to see from VA leaders. Anyone who has been following this situation knows that Dr. Petzel had already announced his retirement earlier this year.”
The chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said the resignation announcement is “the pinnacle of disingenuous doublespeak.”
After the announcement, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said Petzel’s resignation was a forced exit.
“There is no question that this is a termination of his job there before he was planning to go,” McDonough told CBS News.
As undersecretary for health at the VA, Petzel oversaw veterans’ health care in the department. On Thursday, Petzel and Shinseki appeared before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee to respond to the allegations of long wait lists and other problems at VA facilities across the country.
As WND reported Thursday, in his opening statement at the heated Senate hearing, Shinseki admitted cover-ups of patient deaths may be more widespread than previously feared.
Referring to allegations that a VA hospital in Phoenix may have used an elaborate scheme to cover-up dozens of patient deaths because of long wait times, Shinseki said he has ordered a nationwide access review of all other facilities. He said he has already received reports that compliance is under question at some of those facilities.
He did not say which, or how many facilities, may not to be in compliance. That means the problems alleged in Phoenix could be happening at an unknown number of other VA facilities around the country.
Asked if people were cooking the books, Shinseki testified he was not aware of that, except in isolated cases. But, he said, that is reason to take a thorough look.
Senators told Shinseki he had already ignored repeated warnings that his department was in trouble.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., clearly frustrated and angry, pointed out that the committee had been told two years ago that gaming the system at the VA was so widespread, employees would look to get around regulations as soon as the rules were implemented.
Murray sharply warned Shinseki: “We have come to the point where we need more than good intentions.”
The VA chief said he was “mad as hell” and would like to use even stronger language to express how he felt about the possibility that veterans had died due to neglect.
Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said he was troubled by reports that some veterans have to wait up to six months to see a doctor. He pointedly warned the VA chief that “a pattern of intimidation and cover-up has to change today.”
Sanders said if he discovered the VA was running an illegal second set of books, the committee would “deal with it.”
Speaking to reporters after the hearing, Shinseki was asked if he had abandoned veterans.
“I have not abandoned you,” he told vets, and said the vast majority of patients were receiving good care, mentioning VA facilities handled 85 million outpatient appointments last year.
Shinseki was asked about reports that whistleblowers at VA facilities were afraid to come forward.
He replied that the VA is encouraging employees to tell investigators “what’s really going on.”
Shinseki said the law protects whistleblowers and he will follow the law.
Asked if he wanted Attorney General Eric Holder to look into the allegations, the general said he first wanted to see a report from the VA Office of Inspector General, or OIG, which is currently investigating the Phoenix facility.
Shinseki said he will support an FBI investigation if that’s what the OIG recommends.
Also, USA Today has reported the VA’s Office of the Medical Inspector said the Fort Collins, Colorado, medical center falsified appointment records to give the impression that staff doctors had seen patients within the department’s goal of 14 to 30 days.
VA facilities in South Carolina, Florida, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Washington state are also known to be under review.
Some Republican lawmakers have called for Shinseki himself to resign, as has American Legion National Commander Daniel Dellinger.
Dellinger said the Phoenix scandal was not the only reason for a leadership change, but it was the last straw.
The most pointed question came when Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., asked, given all the VA chief has learned, why should he not resign?
The retired four-star army general replied “this is not a job” but a mission for him to provide the critical care needed by those with whom he has gone to war.
Shinseki vowed to continue until he has reached his goal or until the commander in chief tells him his time is up.
Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., who has called for Shinseki’s resignation, accused him of conducting “damage control” rather than taking steps to fix his department.
On Wednesday, President Obama assigned White House deputy chief of staff Rob Nabors to review policies for patient safety rules and the scheduling of patient appointments.
The Senate committee will convene again once the OIG report is completed, to review the findings.
Shinseki wouldn’t tell senators what changes the VA plans to make, because the Office of Inspector General has “advised VA against providing information that could potentially compromise their ongoing review.”
The VA system is the largest health care system in the country, treating 9 million veterans a year at 152 hospitals and more than 1,500 other facilities.