Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki on Friday morning apologized to veterans, Congress and all Americans for the veterans healthcare scandal that has both Republicans and Democrats calling for his resignation.
Shinseki displayed contrition at a speech he gave before a homeless veterans group, about an hour before he was scheduled to meet with President Barack Obama at the White House. That meeting raised even more speculation that Shinseki may be on the way out.
“Given the facts I now know, I apologize as the senior leader of the Department of Veterans Affairs,” he said.
“I extend an apology to the people whom I care most deeply about, and that’s the veterans of this great country, to their families and loved ones who I have been honored to serve for over five years now. I also offer that apology to members of Congress who have supported me, to veteran service organizations who have been my parters for five years, and to the American people,” he added.
“All of them, all of them deserve better from their VA.”
Shinseki said Wednesday’s release of an interim Inspector General report showed that the VA healthcare system has systemic problems that are leading to long wait times for veterans seeking healthcare in Phoenix. But he said there are signs these problems are pervasive throughout the VA.
He said it’s now clear that there is an “unacceptable lack of integrity within some of our veterans health facilities.”
Shinseki said he blamed himself for trusting reports from VA officials that said there were no systemic problems.
“I said when this situation began weeks and months ago, that I thought the problem was limited and isolated because I believed that. I no longer believe it; it is systemic,” he said. “I was too trusting of some, and I accepted as accurate reports that I now know to have been misleading with regard to patient wait times.”
“I can’t explain the lack of integrity among some of the leaders of our healthcare facilities. This is something I rarely encountered during 30 years in uniform.”
Earlier Friday, House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) said he expects that Obama will discuss whether Shinseki can stay on for much longer at the VA.
But despite his Friday morning meeting with Obama, Shinseki did not offer any indication he was on the way out. Instead, he insisted that the VA can fix these problems, and said he is already taking several actions.
For example, he said he was removing senior leaders at the Phoenix Health Care System, and said he would use all authority available to discipline officials involved. Along those lines, he called on the Senate to pass a bill giving the VA more authority to quickly discipline and fire officials.
The House passed a version of this bill, but Senate Democrats delayed consideration of it before leaving for a week-long break last week.
Shinseki also said no senior leadership executives would get performance bonuses this year, and said the VA would no longer use patient wait time data as a way of determining whether officials should get a bonus.
He also reiterated that the VA is making efforts to quickly find healthcare options for the 1,700 veterans who were found to be seeking healthcare services, but were not yet on any wait list in the Phoenix system.