Gary Cameron / Reuters

Veterans Affairs chief Shinseki has resigned, Obama says

Announcement comes amid scandal over scheduling abuses at hospitals, and hours after apology for 'systemic' problems

U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki has resigned, President Barack Obama announced on Friday.

Shinseki, a retired four-star Army general, had come under intense pressure to step down over allegations that as many as 40 veterans died while waiting for medical care at a Phoenix VA hospital.

Obama said Shinseki had offered his resignation Friday morning on the grounds that he would continue to be a “distraction” as the department scrambled to solve the problems.

“With considerable regret, I accepted” the resignation, Obama told reporters at a White House briefing, after weeks of rebuffing calls from both Democratic and Republican lawmakers outraged over the department's handling of what appear to be widespread scheduling abuses to cover up hospital waiting lists.

Deputy Veterans Affairs Secretary Sloan Gibson will serve as Shinseki’s interim replacement until a permanent VA chief is named, Obama said.

He praised Shinseki’s extensive military effort and his accomplishments as VA secretary, including reductions in veteran homelessness and improvements in mental health care for veterans suffering from PTSD, as well as for women veterans.

As recently as Thursday, White House spokesman Jay Carney had commented that Obama still had confidence in his VA chief.

When asked by a reporter if Shinseki had finally fallen victim to scapegoating, Obama responded that the decision to resign had been Shinseki’s. But he acknowledged that “the distractions [Shinseki] refers to in part are political."

Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., the first senator to call for Shinseki’s resignation, welcomed Obama’s announcement on Friday but said he hoped the president would choose a replacement from outside the department.

“We need a fresh perspective and a leader who is willing to shake up the VA’s bureaucratic culture,” Moran said in a statement. “I hope the President is willing to give veterans an individual they can trust to take the Department … in a new direction, and give veterans hope that the VA can move beyond its failures and provide them with the care they earned and deserve.”

Speaking at a conference on homeless veterans in Washington earlier Friday, Shinseki acknowledged "systemic" scheduling abuses at veterans' health care facilities that covered up long wait times. He said the problems were more severe than he initially thought.

He announced he had initiated the process to remove leaders of the Phoenix medical facility at the center of the allegations. According to an investigation report released Wednesday by the department's internal watchdog, about 1,700 veterans in need of similar medical attention were "at risk of being lost or forgotten" because of their exclusion from the waiting list.

Obama said he would continue to work to root out the problems. But he said it would be up to the Justice Department to determine whether there had been any criminal wrongdoing.

Wire services. Michael Pizzi contributed to this report.

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