The announcement from the Department of Veterans Affairs that its top health adviser would resign was met with ridicule by a key Republican and veterans groups, who said the official was already scheduled to resign.
The VA said Friday that Undersecretary for Health Robert Petzel would resign. That announcement came just a day after he and VA Secretary Eric Shinseki testified in the Senate about the scandal involving efforts to cover up long wait-times for veterans seeking healthcare.
But VA’s announcement led to immediate criticism that Petzel’s resignation should not be seen as an act of contrition in light of the scandal, since Petzel was already on the way out.
House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) said he was “disillusioned” by the VA’s announcement.
“Today’s announcement from VA regarding Undersecretary Robert Petzel’s ‘resignation’ is the pinnacle of disingenuous political doublespeak,” Miller said. “Petzel was already scheduled to retire in 2014 and President Obama has already announced his intention to nominate Petzel’s replacement, so characterizing this as a ‘resignation’ just doesn’t pass the smell test.”
Veterans groups agreed, and said Petzel’s resignation cannot be viewed as a solution to the scandal.
“To be clear, Dr. Petzel’s resignation is not the step toward accountability that our members need to see from VA leaders,” said Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America Chief Policy Officer Tom Tarantino. “Anyone who has been following this situation knows that Dr. Petzel had already announced his retirement earlier this year.”
“This move by VA is not a corrective action, but a continuation of business as usual,” said American Legion National Commander Daniel Dellinger. “Dr. Petzel was already scheduled to retire this year, so his resignation now really won’t make that much of a difference.”
Dellinger added that he believes Shinseki needs to resign, since he continues to preside over an agency that has shown little interest in solving the problem of long veteran wait-times.
“Meanwhile, Secretary Shinseki and [Under Secretary for Benefits Allison] Hickey remain on the job,” he said. “They are both part of VA’s leadership problem, and we want them to resign as soon as possible. This isn’t personal. VA needs a fundamental shift in leadership if it is to defeat its systemic lack of accountability.”
Shinseki has come under increasing pressure to resign, but both he and President Barack Obama have indicated he would stay on to try to solve the problems at the VA. In his statement on Petzel’s announcement, Shinseki indicated he was not going anywhere.
“As we know from the Veteran community, most Veterans are satisfied with the quality of their VA health care, but we must do more to improve timely access to that care,” Shinseki said. “I am committed to strengthening Veterans’ trust and confidence in their VA healthcare system.
On Thursday, both Shinseki and Petzel testified in a Senate committee in which senators from both parties blasted them for failing to do anything for years about the problem, despite some documentation dating back years ago. Senators were also frustrated by the lack of any apparent decision to fire anyone in reaction to the scandal.
When asked directly, Shinseki and Petzel said they were not aware that anyone had been fired yet, and Shinseki said it would be up to President Obama on whether he stays on.
Adding to the pressure on Shinseki was an op-ed in the Army Times on Friday, which called on the secretary to resign.
“Shinseki has long been recognized as a behind-the-scenes leader, one who uses his influence outside the public eye,” the Army Times wrote. “Unfortunately, that’s simply the wrong style for what VA needs now: a forceful, highly visible leader who publicly demands reforms and bluntly details the resources necessary to carry them out — someone who will hold people accountable, bruise egos when necessary and push hard to bring VA into the modern age.
— This story was updated at 5 p.m. Friday to reflect reactions to the VA announcement.