WASHINGTON — Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki, who has been sharply criticized by the American Legion and members of Congress over long delays in providing service to veterans at VA hospitals, announced his resignation on May 30.
Shinseki, a Vietnam veteran and former Army chief of staff, had served as VA secretary since the beginning of President Obama’s first term in 2009. President Obama has named Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson to serve as acting secretary until a permanent replacement has been found.
In a farewell message to VA employees, Shinseki wrote:
“This morning, I resigned as secretary of veterans affairs. My personal and professional commitment and my loyalty to veterans, their families, and our survivors was the driving force behind that decision. That loyalty has never wavered, and it will never wane.
“Over the course of the last five-and-a-half years, you have made significant and lasting progress in expanding access for veterans, in significantly decreasing the backlog in veterans’ claims while building the system that will end the backlog in 2015, and in bringing an end to veterans’ homelessness.
“We have come a long way together in bringing this department into the 21st century in ways that will serve veterans well into the future. Yet, there is more work to be done, and I have no doubt that you will achieve all that you set about doing in the interest of veterans.
“I have been privileged to have served as your secretary and am deeply grateful to the employees and leaders who have placed the interests of veterans above and beyond their own self-interests; who are serving with dignity, compassion, and dedication; and who live by VA’s core values of integrity, commitment, advocacy, respect, and excellence.
“I know that you will provide your support and loyalty to Acting Secretary Sloan Gibson, who is now your leader. In fact, I expect it.
“Thank you. May God richly bless all of you, veterans, and this great country of ours.”
Only two days earlier, Shinseki had given an update on steps he was taking to address the crisis: “I respect the independent review and recommendations of the Office of Inspector General (OIG) regarding systemic issues with patient scheduling and access. I have reviewed the interim report, and the findings are reprehensible to me, to this department, and to veterans. I am directing that the Phoenix VA Health Care System (VAHCS) immediately triage each of the 1,700 veterans identified by the OIG to bring them timely care.
“I have already placed the Phoenix VAHCS leadership on administrative leave, and have directed an independent site team to assess scheduling and administrative practices at the Phoenix VAHCS. This team began their work in April, and we are already taking action on multiple recommendations from this report.
“We will aggressively and fully implement the remaining OIG recommendations to ensure that we contact every single veteran identified by the OIG. I have directed the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) to complete a nationwide access review to ensure a full understanding of VA’s policy and continued integrity in managing patient access to care. Further, we are accelerating access to care throughout our system and in communities where veterans reside.
“It is important to allow OIG’s independent and objective review to proceed until completion. OIG has requested that VA take no additional personnel actions in Phoenix until their review is complete.”
Reactions from Congress
Members of Congress from Shinseki’s native Hawaii, all Democrats, issued the following statements:
Sen. Mazie Hirono, a member of the Senate Armed Services and Veterans’ Affairs committees: “Gen. Eric Shinseki’s patriotism and dedication to this nation is without parallel. I’ve had a number of opportunities to talk directly with Gen. Shinseki about the challenges facing the VA. I agree with the president’s statement that his ‘commitment to our veterans is unquestioned.’
“I respect the secretary’s decision to step aside in order to avoid being a distraction. The focus should be on delivering care to our veterans and ensuring the VA has the necessary resources to accomplish that. As I’ve done all year long, I met with veterans groups in Hawaii this week to discuss their first-hand experiences with the VA. I will take their comments, insights and concerns back to D.C. to inform my work to address the unacceptable situation that has been uncovered.”
Hirono had previously questioned Shinseki directly during a hearing of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee on May 15. This week, Hirono met with veterans in Hawaii, including hosting a roundtable in Aliamanu.
Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, a member of the House Armed Services Committee: “I personally appreciate Gen. Shinseki’s unshakable commitment to our country and want to thank him for his decades of service. As I’ve said, the decision of whether and when he should resign as secretary of veterans affairs was between him and the president, and I think this simply got to the point where he felt that he was a distraction from the pressing need to address the serious, systemic problems facing the VA.
“I know that Gen. Shinseki is driven by both a commitment to serving our veterans and a desire to maintain the public trust. He is guided by the question, ‘What is in the best interest of our veterans?’ I think that while he would have liked to have been the leader who fixed the problems at the VA, he also recognized that we needed a change in leadership in order to proceed effectively. In that light, I think his resignation today is not a sign of failure, but of the same humility and dedication that he has always displayed in his years of service to our country. I think America and Hawaii can be proud of him.
“I hope that Gen. Shinseki is right, and that we can now make real progress in addressing the very serious, and in some cases intolerable, shortcomings at the VA that are affecting the men and women who have served our nation.”
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, an Iraq War veteran: “Gen. Eric Shinseki is an American hero; he is a man of character and integrity, with a deep love and commitment for serving our country. Veterans everywhere, and the people of Gen. Shinseki’s home state of Hawaii, continue to have great love and respect for him and his service.
“But this day is not about Gen. Shinseki. This day is about all of our servicemembers and veterans, and the tragedy that has been occurring within the VA, an organization which has lost sight of its mission. Our loyalty, anger, and hurt must be focused on taking action to ensure that not another day passes where a veteran in need remains waiting in the dark.
“We are facing a crisis, with veterans waiting months and sometimes years on official or secret waiting lists, while others are lost in the bureaucracy. This is unacceptable, and dishonors these great Americans who sacrificed so much.
“I am currently drafting legislation that will ensure that veterans are immediately able to access care from a doctor, whether in the VA system or not. This is an urgent action that must be taken to begin to deal with the immediate crisis and ensure all veterans are getting the care they need.
“Until the VA undergoes a systemic overhaul, and is once again able to deliver the highest standard of care to our veterans, we need to take creative steps that will yield immediate results.”
Another member of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, Rep. Mark Takano (D-Riverside), a ranking member of the House Veterans Affairs Economic Opportunity Subcommittee, said: “Gen. Shinseki has served his country for decades and I admire his dedication toward our veterans. But with the recent revelations that some VA facilities were hiding wait times and using secret wait lists, I believe that his decision to resign as secretary of veterans affairs will help the investigation, as it can now proceed without distraction.
“It is my hope that the investigation will be completed swiftly, and reforms that will treat our veterans with the care and respect they deserve will be implemented as soon as possible.”
Rep. Ami Bera (D-Rancho Cordova), a physician, issued a statement on May 29 calling on Shinseki to resign: “Our veterans, and their families have sacrificed so much for our country, and they deserve our unwavering support. That’s why I have been working to address problems at the VA and to get our heroes the benefits they are owed since my very first month in office.
“The latest report that at least 1,700 veterans in Phoenix were never even placed on a wait list to get the medical care they needed is deeply troubling. This cannot continue. It’s obvious there are very serious systemic and management problems at the VA that we must address.
“While Gen. Shinseki’s dedication and service to his country are indisputable, these failures that happened under his leadership are unacceptable and it is clear that he must step down.
“These problems are much bigger than one person, though, and we must continue to investigate how this occurred, find out if it’s happening elsewhere, and continue to respond. That will likely require more changes at the VA, including holding others who allowed this to happen accountable.”
Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), a veteran who lost both legs in the Iraq War and a former VA official who worked under Shinseki, told The Washington Post just prior to the resignation, “Our first priority should be the veterans and at this point whether Secretary Shinseki will stay or go is too much of a distraction. I think he has to go. He certainly loves veterans, but it’s time for new leadership, it’s time to get someone in who will put veterans first. We’ve moved away from veterans being the primacy of the conversation. It’s now a political discussion and that’s not where it should be when it comes to our nation’s heroes.”
Shinseki was the only remaining Asian American member of the Cabinet, following the resignation of Energy Secretary Steven Chu in April 2013 and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke’s departure in August 2011 to become U.S. ambassador to China. Duckworth, the first Thai American woman elected to Congress and the first Asian American elected to Congress from Illinois, has been mentioned as a possible replacement for Shinseki.