WASHINGTON (AP) -- The person responsible for ensuring that more than 12 million veterans get their benefits has resigned as undersecretary of the Veterans Benefits Administration.
Allison Hickey has served as an undersecretary at the Department of Veterans Affairs since June 2011. She has been in charge as a backlog in disability claims ballooned to about 611,000 in March 2013 and has since fallen by nearly 90 percent.
VA Secretary Robert A. McDonald says he regretfully accepted the resignation and credited Hickey for modernizing the disability claims process. McDonald said he appreciates all that Hickey has done to help transform the VA.
But Hickey was also coming under fire from veterans groups and lawmakers after a critical inspector general's report found that two other executives within the Veterans Benefits Administration received a total of about $400,000 in relocation expenses and retained their annual salaries despite a significant decrease in job responsibilities. A House committee was scheduled to hold a hearing on that report next week.
Rep. Jeff Miller, the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, was a longtime critic. He had called for her resignation going back to when Eric Shinseki ran the department; Hickey was one of the last top holdovers to remain from Shinseki's tenure as the VA secretary.
"Right now, VBA needs a leader who will put veterans, not VA bureaucrats first, while working to end the backlog without sacrificing quality, accuracy or service to veterans," Miller said. "Unfortunately, Hickey was not that type of leader."
Hickey served for more than 30 years in the Air force, Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve before retiring with the rank of brigadier general.
The management shakeup comes one week after McDonald admitted before a congressional committee that the agency is in the "midst of a leadership crisis," and "that's why I've brought on new leadership," the Daily Caller reported.
According to McDonald, there are five ways out of the crisis. The first is to get the right leaders in place. The second is that the department has to be clear on what culture it wants, and it has to discipline retaliation against whistleblowers.
Third, McDonald said the department has been working with special counsel to ensure that 45 whistleblowers receive restitution.
Fourth, the Office of Special Counsel has certified the VA for doing the training necessary to improve on working with whistleblowers.
And finally, McDonald underscored the need for town hall meetings.