Top VA Healthcare Official Resigns Amid Scandal

Friday, 16 May 2014 04:03 PM

By Cathy Burke and Todd Beamon

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The top health official at the beleaguered Veterans Affairs department abruptly quit Friday amid growing outrage over delays in care for ailing veterans at numerous VA facilities.

VA Undersecretary for Health Dr. Robert Petzel was supposed to retire this summer, but VA Secretary Eric Shinseki asked for his resignation early, Military Times reports.

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"As we know from the veteran community, most veterans are satisfied with the quality of their VA healthcare, but we must do more to improve timely access to that care," Shinseki said in a statement. "I am committed to strengthening veterans’ trust and confidence in their VA healthcare system."

VA officials wouldn't elaborate on any specifics on the forced resignation, according to the Times.

Petzel was on the hot seat Thursday along with Shinseki, testifying before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee about the scandal.

And though Shinseki claimed to know little about past memos and studies touching on problems with veterans’ healthcare access or appointment wait times, Petzel said he had reviewed nearly all of them, and ordered corrections and further investigations, Military Times reports.

The leadership in the VA has come under intense scrutiny since whistlebowers alleged Phoenix VA Health Care officials doctored medical appointment wait times in an effort to hide problems in the healthcare system – delays that may have contributed to the deaths of 40 ill veterans.

Similar problems have surfaced in seven other cities, the Times reports.

"Despite the White House’s attempts to hide behind talking points and an investigation being led by a political insider, this is more proof that there are a lot of unanswered questions, and an independent investigation is necessary," Republican National Committee head Reince Priebus said in a statement. "There are reports that at least 40 veterans have died waiting for care. It’s time for an independent investigation."

The American Legion's commander, Daniel Dellinger, also was critical, saying Petzel's early resignation "really won't make that much of a difference."

"This move by VA is not a corrective action, but a continuation of business as usual," he said. "Meanwhile, Secretary Shinseki and Under Secretary Hickey remain on the job. They are both part of VA's leadership problem, and we want them to resign as soon as possible. ... VA needs a fundamental shift in leadership if it is to defeat its systemic lack of accountability."

Dellinger has been sounding the call for a clean sweep at the top of the VA since May 5.

North Carolina Republican Sen. Richard Burr, ranking member of the Senate's Veterans' Affairs committee, said any sugguestion that Petzel's earlier-than-expected resignation "somehow changes things at VA should be met with a skeptical eye at best."

On Thursday, officials from the VA Inspector General’s office said they have found no links so far between care delays and patient deaths, but are examining issues with how quickly veterans can get medical appointments, and could file criminal charges if warranted. That probe won't be completed until August.

Petzel had served as VA’s top health official since February 2010. Dr. Robert Jesse, principal deputy undersecretary for health, will take over his role until a permanent replacement is confirmed, according to the Times.

Earlier this month, Dr. Jeffrey Murawsky, director of VA’s Great Lakes Health Care System, was nominated by the White House to replace Petzel.

Meanwhile, an Army Times editorial called for Shinseki to step down.

Noting allegations at the heart of the VA care lapse scandal "are hardly new," having been outlined in a December 2012 report by the Government Accountability Office, "That should have served as a top-down wake-up call to clean house and bring overdue transparency and reform to what long has been viewed as the most dysfunctional agency in the federal system," the editorial says.

Eighteen months later, the VA still fails "to provide timely medical care for the nation’s veterans as demand for those services grow."

"In situations such as this, the buck must stop at the top: After five years on the job, it is time for VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to step down," the editorial urges.

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