WASHINGTON — Someone has finally paid the political price for the Obama administration's mushrooming VA scandal.
President Obama said he accepted the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki "with considerable regret" Friday morning.
The president said Shinseki did not want to be a distraction because his priority is to fix the problem.
VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson will be the new acting secretary.
The president also ordered immediate changes many critics have been demanding, following the release of a preliminary report by the inspector general that was a damning indictment of the Phoenix VA facility.
The IG report found an average wait time for care of 115 days and 1,700 veterans waiting for a primary-care appointment who are not even on the official waiting list.
Obaama said the VA has been ordered "to personally contact every veteran in Phoenix waiting for appointments to get them the care that they need and that they deserve."
He also announced the top officials at the Phoneix VA heath-care center would be fired, and any possible performance bonuses this year for VA senior executives have been cancelled.
Whistleblowers have claimed that executives at the Phoenix VA, in order to qualify for performance bonuses, had created a fake waiting list that showed much shorter wait times. And, in fact, the Phoenix VA had claimed the average wait time was 24 days, not the 115 days the IG's report discovered.
Signaling that the scandal shows little sign of slowing, Obama admitted the initial review of VA facilities found the misconduct has not been limited to a few VA facilities, but many across the country.
Reaction from two members of Congress was swift and scathing, with Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Texas, calling the removal of the VA chief "a smokescreen by offering Shinseki as a burnt sacrifice."
The congressman said the responsibility lies squarely with the commander in chief because Obama was "told of the fraud the week after the November 2008 election," but he "deliberately placed his own political ambition before the lives of the veterans. Now Obama is sacrificing another disabled veteran, General Shinseki, to save his own political vanity."
Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., called the resignation the right decision, but "rearranging the bureaucratic deck chairs alone will not fix the far-reaching problems at the Department of Veteran Affairs."
She blasted the president, calling it "a stunning failure of leadership that he didn’t tackle the VA’s issues he was warned about six years ago and promised to fix."
Earlier in the day, at the end of a speech to an annual conference of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans in Washington, Shinseki publicly apologized for the “indefensible” lack of integrity among some senior leaders of the VA health-care system.
He acknowledged that he now realized the problems in the VA exist across the system, and are not just isolated instances.
Shinseki said he had been "too trusting" of top officials reporting to him, and “accepted as accurate reports that I now know to have been misleading with regard to patient wait times.”
He added, “That breach of integrity is irresponsible,” and, “It is indefensible and unacceptable to me.”
Calling him a "good man" who has shown great leadership on the past, Obama said Shinseki likely would have been too distracted to do his job by calls for his resignation, and acknowledged, “We’ve got to deal with Congress” and "you guys," meaning, the media.
The president spoke glowingly of Shinseki, saying he had "served his country with honor for nearly 50 years. He did two tours of combat in Vietnam. He’s a veteran who left a part of himself on the battlefield."
Obama also spoke highly of the job Shinseki had done as secretary of the VA, despite the horrible scandal under his watch, citing "record investments in our veterans."
The VA problems became a national sensation on April 14 when CNN reported that at least 40 U.S. veterans died waiting for appointments at the Phoenix VA, many of whom were placed on a secret waiting list, to cover up the actual wait times.
The IG's interim report does not address whether the long wait times caused the deaths at the Phoenix VA, but that is what whistleblowers have claimed. Staff members at other facilities have since made similar claims, leading many to suspect the problems run throughout the whole system.
The report also said the number of VA facilities under investigation has jumped from 26 to 42 facilities across the country.
Following the release of the report, House Committee on Veteran's Affairs chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida, had called for the resignation of the VA chief.
“Shinseki is a good man who has served his country honorably, but he has failed to get VA’s health care system in order despite repeated and frequent warnings from Congress, the Government Accountability Office and the IG,” said Miller in a statement. “What’s worse, to this day, Shinseki — in both word and deed — appears completely oblivious to the severity of the health care challenges facing the department.”
Miller also called on U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to begin a criminal investigation into the VA scandal.
“Today the inspector general confirmed beyond a shadow of a doubt what was becoming more obvious by the day: Wait time schemes and data manipulation are systemic throughout VA and are putting veterans at risk in Phoenix and across the country,” said Miller.
The scandal is a growing crisis for the Obama administration, particularly because the president has vowed so often in the past to reform the VA.
In fact, WND discovered that during his transition into the White House in 2008-09, President Obama proposed in his “Obama-Biden” plan to “make the VA a leader of national health care reform so that veterans get the best care possible.”
However, instead of fixing the VA, the administration has had to defend its role in the death of veterans by neglect.
In vowing to make the Veterans Administration the model of national health-care reform back in 2008, the administration has made the outlook for scandal-plagued Obamacare seem even worse.
WND has also discovered that eight years earlier, in a failed run for Congress, Obama unveiled a sweeping health-care plan that modeled aspects of the Veterans Administration’s medical system.
The discovery of the Obama-Biden VA plan fits a pattern that has come to light last week in which Obama repeatedly warned, or was warned, of serious problems at the VA but apparently did little in response.
In the document labeled the Obama-Biden Plan from the Office of the President Elect, Obama makes a series of promises to veterans, including:
- Fix the Benefits Bureaucracy: Hire additional claims workers, and improve training and accountability so that VA benefit decisions are rated fairly and consistently. Transform the paper benefit claims process to an electronic one to reduce errors and improve timeliness.
- Strengthen VA Care: Make the VA a leader of national health care reform so that veterans get the best care possible. Improve care for polytrauma vision impairment, prosthetics, spinal cord injury, aging, and women's health.
- Fully Fund VA Medical Care: Fully fund the VA so it has all the resources it needs to serve the veterans who need it, when they need it. Establish a world-class VA Planning Division to avoid future budget shortfalls.
The Obama-Biden plan seems to have fallen so far short of its promise to "Fix the Benefits Bureaucracy" that the VA itself has admitted 23 vets have died waiting for care, and investigations of possible death-by-neglect have spread to 26 VA facilities around the country.
As WND has reported, Obama was warned about severe problems at the VA repeatedly over the years, even before he became president.
- WND discovered that Obama was briefed on problems at the VA as far back as 2005, when he was a senator and a member of the Veterans Affairs committee.
- In a 2007 speech, Sen. Obama said, "Keeping faith with those who serve must always be a core American value and a cornerstone of American patriotism. Because America's commitment to its servicemen and women begins at enlistment, and it must never end."
- The Washington Times reported Monday that the Obama administration received notice more than five years ago that VA medical facilities were reporting inaccurate waiting times and experiencing scheduling failures that threatened to deny veterans timely health care.
- VA officials reportedly warned the Obama-Biden transition team in the weeks after the 2008 presidential election that the wait times the facilities were reporting were not trustworthy.
- More recently, House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., wrote a letter to Obama on May 21, 2013, that warned: "an alarming pattern of serious and significant patient care issues at the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Centers (VAMCs) across the country ... (including) failures, deceptions, and lack of accountability permeating VA’s healthcare system … I believe your direct involvement and leadership is required."
- And, WND reported last week that Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., reminded VA Secretary Eric Shinseki that Congress had been informed 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.
Democrats have been quick to say the problems were caused by an increase in veterans in the system due to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that the solution is to increase spending on the VA, but the numbers tell a different story.
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., blamed the VA scandal on former President George W. Bush and an increase in veterans.
"[W]e go in a war in Afghanistan, leave Afghanistan for Iraq with unfinished business in Afghanistan. Ten years later, we have all of these additional veterans. In the past five years, two million more veterans needing benefits from the VA. That’s a huge, huge increase."
John Merline at Investor's Business Daily crunched the numbers and found that just wasn't true, and, according to government statistics, there are actually far fewer veterans in the VA.
He also found the VA's budget has been exploding, even as the number of veterans steadily declines.
VA spending nearly tripled from 2000 to 2013, while the population of veterans declined by 4.3 million.
Even more telling, wounded warriors coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan are not increasing treatment costs.
Those vets are actually far cheaper to treat than aging vets.
It also found, while these Iraq and Afghan vets account for 7 percent of those treated, they were responsible for only 4 percent of its health costs.
Iraq and Afghan vets, the report found, "are typically younger and healthier than the average VHA patient and as a result are less expensive to treat."
Former AP Washington Bureau Chief Ron Fournier, now with National Journal, said Obama’s poor handling of the mismanagement at the Department of Veterans Affairs could plague his presidency as an all-time low point.
“The president has known the VA has been a mess for a long time, and hasn’t done anything to get it fixed,” he said.
“It’s gotten worse recently — at least for the last two years, we’ve known we’ve had these problems and nothing’s been done,” said Fournier.
New York times columnist Paul Krugman called the VA a "huge success story" in 2011, saying "[I]t’s free from the perverse incentives created when doctors and hospitals profit from expensive tests and procedures, whether or not those procedures actually make medical sense."
Krugman added, "Yes, this is 'socialized medicine' … But it works, and suggests what it will take to solve the troubles of US health care more broadly."
In 2009, his fellow New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, wrote, "Take the hospital system run by the Department of Veterans Affairs, the largest integrated health system in the United States. It is fully government run, much more 'socialized medicine' than is Canadian health care with its private doctors and hospitals. And the system for veterans is by all accounts one of the best-performing and most-cost-effective elements in the American medical establishment."
Follow Garth Kant on Twitter @DCgarth