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Shinseki acts against Phoenix VA officials, then turns in resignation

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WASHINGTON – Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned Friday amid the controversy swirling around the Phoenix VA facility, but not before announcing several actions aimed at the problems uncovered in Arizona.

Pausing after an early-morning speech to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, Shinseki apologized for the failures of the VA system and for the harm “to the people whom I care most deeply about, and that’s the veterans of this great country.”

A preliminary inspector general’s report this week confirmed that there were “significant delays” in care for veterans in Phoenix, and that auditors had found similar problems throughout the system. Investigators were looking into claims that VA officials had falsified patient waiting lists to make their performance look better and, in some cases, improve their chances for bonuses.

Shinseki said he could not explain “the lack of integrity among some of the leaders of our health care facilities,” but said the problem can be fixed.

“I have initiated the process for removal of senior leaders of the Phoenix VA medical center,” Shinseki said, adding that he had canceled performance bonuses for senior executives and banned patient wait time as a measure used in agency workers’ evaluations.

Shinseki also said the agency will contact all 1,700 Valley vets that the inspector general found were not on any waiting list for care, official or unofficial.

“We are contacting each of the 1,700 veterans waiting in Phoenix for appointments to bring them the care they need and deserve and we will continue to accelerate access to care for veterans nationwide,” Shinseki said.

Within two hours of the speech, Shinseki was at the White House where he briefed President Barack Obama and then submitted his resignation. Obama, who accepted the resignation, said Shinseki claimed his continued presence as secretary would be a distraction to the process of fixing the agency.

“We don’t have time for distractions,” Obama said at a late-morning news conference.

The resignation was welcomed by lawmakers, who had praise for Shinseki but had increasingly been calling for him to step down. But they cautioned that more needs to be done.

“Shinseki is taking the brunt of the blame for these problems, but he is not the only one within VA who bears responsibility,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. “Nearly every member of Shinseki’s inner circle failed him in a major way.”

Miller said Shinseki’s legacy at the VA will be tainted by “a pervasive lack of accountability among poorly performing VA employees and managers, apparent widespread corruption among medical center officials and an unparalleled lack of transparency with Congress, the public and the press.”

Those sentiments were echoed by members of the Arizona delegation, some of whom had joined the chorus calling for Shinseki to step down. Rep. Ron Barber, D-Tucson, called the resignation “an important step in restoring our veterans’ and the nation’s trust in the Veterans Administration,” while Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Mesa, called on the president to take “the next step” and open a criminal investigation of the matter.

Shinseki told the homeless veterans’ group that he “was too trusting of some” in the VA system, but that the findings in the reports were “totally unacceptable.”