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From Health Law Daily, May 30, 2014

Secretary Shinseki resigns following confirmation of nationwide misconduct at VA facilities

By Melissa Skinner, JD

The White House announced the resignation of Eric Shinseki, the Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs, and confirmed evidence of misconduct nationwide at VA facilities during a press conference today. This announcement comes just two days after the release of a report by the Veterans’ Affairs Office of Inspector General (VA OIG), which confirmed allegations that many veterans have not had the appropriate access to care due to incorrect practices of the Veterans’ Health Administration (VHA). In a press conference, the President stated that Shinseki had already began to terminate employees of the VA including senior leaders at the Phoenix Health Care System (HCS), which was the facility reviewed in the recently release VA OIG report, when he submitted his own resignation to the President. While President Obama expressed “considerable regret” he announced that he accepted the resignation because he agreed with Shinseki that his continuation in the Secretary role would be a distraction to fixing the problems in the VHA.

Substantiated allegations. The President first responded to the recent controversy created by allegations that excessive wait times and other blocks on the access to care led to serious health consequences, and even in some cases, the death of some veterans that rely on the VHA for health care services in a public address on May 21, 2014. At that time, President Obama issued a directive regarding the allegations of misconduct and stated that any instances of wrongdoing would be punished. In terms of Secretary Shinseki, the President ordered him to “investigate the full scope of the problem.” Since that address, the VA OIG released a report that substantiated some of the allegations that were previously reported to the OIG Hotline including the fact that at the Phoenix HCS 1,700 veterans were improperly left off the electronic waiting list (EWL), that the average waiting time for care for those properly included on the wait lists was 115 days, and that there were instances when actions at the VA deviated from the explicit policy and procedure. The report is the result of an ongoing investigation and the VA OIG is expected to produce a final report with more findings and a specific plan for correcting improper policies and procedures.

Resignation. The resignation of Secretary Shinseki was announced by the White House after the President met with Shinseki and Rob Nabors, the President’s Deputy Chief of Staff, over the initial review of VA facilities across the country. In the President’s subsequent address regarding Shinseki’s resignation, the President announced that the findings of the initial review indicated that “the misconduct has not been limited to a few VA facilities. But many across the country.” President Obama noted that Shinseki was a veteran himself who has “served the country for almost 50 years,” and presided over initiatives such as the record enrollment of over two million veterans for health care coverage. According to the President’s remarks, Shinseki stated that the VA needs new leadership and, at this point, he would only serve as a distraction to getting the veterans the care they need.

President’s remarks. The President’s comments regarding the resignation were limited to the accomplishments of Shinseki and the context in which he accepted this resignation. When asked what made him change his mind about his confidence in Shinseki’s ability to continue as Secretary, the President answered, “[his] judgment. I think his belief that he would be a distraction from the task at hand, which is to make sure what’s broken gets fixed so that his fellow veterans are getting the services they need.” In a follow-up briefing to the President’s statements regarding the resignation, White House Press Secretary James “Jay” Carney noted that the “challenges associated with the VA… based on what we have learned in recent weeks… are deeper and more serious than was is remotely acceptable.”

Moving forward. Along with Shinseki’s resignation, the President announced that Sloan Gibson, who became Deputy Secretary of the VA just three months ago, will be stepping in as Acting Secretary. The President also confirmed that Rob Nabors would to continue to work with the VA temporarily and that he “made clear” to both Nabors and Gibson that reforms should not wait. However, the President also acknowledged that steps to find a new permanent VA Secretary would also be moving forward.

Other resignations. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney also announced he will be leaving the White House, in a move unrelated to Shinseki’s resignation. Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest will assume the role upon his mid-June departure.

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