President Obama on Friday accepted the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki.
Obama said Shinseki offered his resignation to avoid being a "distraction" as the department works to make improvements following an ongoing scandal involving secret lists of veterans waiting to get doctor appointments at VA hospitals across the country.
"I regret that he has to resign under these circumstances ... and I share Secretary Shinseki's assessment that the No. 1 priority is that the [problem] gets fixed," Obama said.
VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson will take over for Shinseki as the acting secretary until a replacement is found, Obama said. Gibson took over in September as Shinseki's deputy after leading the USO.
Obama said Rob Nabors, Obama's deputy chief of staff, will also remain with the VA to help Gibson with the transition and the selection of a replacement.
Shinseki tendered his resignation only two hours after announcing he was firing the senior leadership at the VA Medical Center in Phoenix, Arizona, where allegations of a secret wait list and long appointment wait times first emerged in April.
Shinseki also announced a series of steps he ordered to address "systemic" issues with the VA health care system and asked the Senate to pass legislation making it easier for him to fire senior executives within the VA found culpable in the manipulation of appointment schedules.
During his remarks, Shinseki said the findings of a VA inspector general interim report contradicted reports he had received across the Veterans Health Administration that veterans asking for an appointment to get into the system were seen within two weeks, per VA policy.
"When this situation began weeks and months ago, I said I thought the problem was limited and isolated because I believed that. I no longer believe that. It is systemic. I was too trusting of some, and I accepted as accurate [a] report that I now know was misleading with regard to patient wait times."
Obama said that in his meeting that Shinseki, the retired four-star Army general told him about his time in Vietnam when he "might have to order an attack just based on a phone call from some 20-something-year-old corporal, and he's got to trust he's getting good information and it's life or death."
"I think he's deeply disappointed by the fact that bad news did not get to him, and that the structures were not in place to identify this problem quickly and fix it," Obama said. "His priority now is to make sure that happens and he felt that new leadership would serve our veterans, and I agree with him."
Obama also said he would leave it to the Justice Department to determine if there should be a criminal investigation into patient appointment manipulation.
On Wednesday, the VA's inspector general issued an interim report on the Phoenix VA Medical Center that found 1,700 veterans seeking care were not put on the official electronic waiting list. VA Acting Inspector General Richard Griffin wrote that "these veterans were and continue to be at risk of being forgotten or lost in Phoenix HCS's convoluted scheduling process."
-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.