Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki on Friday said he is firing the top administrators of the VA Medical Center in Phoenix, Arizona -- ground zero for what Shinseki called a systemwide problem of officials manipulating patient appointment schedules.
Shinseki also said he will ask the Senate to vote on legislation granting him greater authority to fire managers across the VA responsible for what he called a breakdown in trust and integrity.
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."
Shinseki said recent discoveries to include the IG's report have changed his view on the leadership provided by VA executives.
"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."
Shinseki said no one in the Senior Executive Service of the Veterans Health Administration will be eligible for any type of performance bonus for 2014, and appointment wait times as a measure of management success will no longer be part of executive evaluations, he said.
Following his remarks, made before the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans Annual Conference in Washington, Shinseki issued his resignation to President Obama, which the president accepted.
It's unclear at this point if the policy changes made by Shinseki before his resignation will stand, but few expect the firings to be reversed.
Notwithstanding Republican leaders in the House and Senate arguing that the issue should not be politicized, Republican political groups have begun using the VA scandal as fodder in campaign ads.
Up to 40 veterans on a secret list of patients waiting to see a doctor at the Phoenix hospital reportedly died before getting an appointment. Whistleblowers at the facility said the list was separate from the active wait list and an official electronic waiting list used to monitor wait times.
The 1,700 veterans identified on a secret wait list in Phoenix are all being contacted and given quick access to care, he said.
In addition to asking lawmakers to pass the management accountability legislation, Shinseki said he is asking Congress "to fill existing VA leadership positions that are vacant."
Testimony previously given to Congress revealed that hospital managers regularly traded best practices for getting around VA policy that a veteran seeking an appointment be seen within two weeks. Whistleblowers have said the manipulation of appointments is linked to managers making their numbers look better in order to qualify for thousands of dollars in performance bonuses.
"I can't explain the lack of integrity in some of the leaders of our healthcare facilities," Shinseki said Friday. "This is something I rarely encountered during 38 years in uniform."
Shinseki apologized to the country's veterans and their families, to members of Congress who have supported him and to the veterans service organizations with which the VA partners to help veterans.
The three Phoenix hospital officials set to be removed had already been put on administrative leave by Shinseki.
Joe Davis, spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, called the firing of the Phoenix leadership a "good start."
"We support holding people fully accountability to the maximum extent of the law," Davis said. He said the VFW would support a criminal investigation and prosecution "if willful negligence can be proved."
Some in Congress have demanded that the Justice Department open an investigation into the allegations, and Shinseki said he would also ask for that if the IG recommends it.
Shinseki's call on Friday for Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., to bring the Veterans Affairs Management Accountability Act up for a floor vote marks the first time the VA chief has endorsed the bill. Previously, he said he had all the authority required to hold people accountable, to include executives.
On Thursday, Republican members of the House and representatives from several of the veterans groups that support it, held a press conference urging the Senate to take up and vote on its version of the bill.
The House version of the accountability act, drafted by House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., passed overwhelmingly when it was voted on earlier this month.
-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.