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Originally published Friday, May 16, 2014 at 8:35 PM

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Top VA health official resigns under fire

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki said he has accepted the resignation of Robert Petzel, the department’s undersecretary for health care amid a firestorm over reported delays in care and falsified records at veterans hospitals.


The Associated Press

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WASHINGTON — The top official for the health care of veterans resigned Friday amid a firestorm over reported delays in care and falsified records at veterans hospitals.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki said he has accepted the resignation of Robert Petzel, the department’s undersecretary for health care, effective immediately. Shinseki had asked for the resignation, a department official later said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak for attribution.

Reports of long waits for appointments and processing benefit applications have plagued VA for years. The agency has shortened backlogs but allegations that veterans have died while awaiting VA care have created an election-year uproar.

A former clinic director at the VA’s medical center in Phoenix told a House committee last month that up to 40 people may have died while awaiting appointments and that VA officials kept a secret appointment list to mask the delays.

Shinseki asked the VA’s inspector general to investigate the clinic director’s charges.

An initial review of 17 people who died while awaiting appointments at the Phoenix hospital found that none of their deaths appeared to have been caused by delays in treatment, acting inspector general Richard Griffin told senators Thursday.

But he also said new complaints about wait-lists and falsified patient appointments had surfaced at other VA hospitals and clinics after the Phoenix allegations came to light. At least 10 new allegations about manipulated waiting times and other problems have surfaced in the past three weeks, he said.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, mocked the announcement of Petzel’s resignation, calling it “the pinnacle of disingenuous political doublespeak” since he had been scheduled to retire this year anyway.

A White House official said President Obama supports Shinseki’s decision and thanks Petzel for his service.

The announcement of Petzel’s resignation came a day after Shinseki and Petzel were grilled at a four-hour hearing of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, where lawmakers and veteran groups expressed exasperation of long-standing problems at the department.

Meanwhile, House Republicans scheduled a vote Wednesday on legislation that would give Shinseki more authority to fire or demote senior executives and administrators at the agency and its 152 medical centers.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has backed Shinseki but appeared to waver after Shinseki came before a Senate committee this week.

“If he doesn’t give a better answer, then I’m not sure how he wouldn’t have to do anything but resign,” McCain told Fox News Channel Thursday night.

McCain said he thinks problems at the VA go beyond incompetence.

“If these allegations are true people should be going to jail, not just resigning their positions,” he said, adding that a criminal investigation by the Justice Department appears inevitable.

Shinseki last fall had convened a commission to recommend candidates for presidential appointment to be the new undersecretary after Petzel’s retirement.

VA is required by law to convene a commission to seek and review candidates for the position.

Petzel had agreed to remain until the Senate confirmed a replacement. President Obama this month announced his intent to nominate Dr. Jeffrey Murawsky to be undersecretary for health.

“As we know from the veteran community, most veterans are satisfied with the quality of their VA health care, but we must do more to improve timely access to that care,” Shinseski said in a statement announcing the undersecretary’s resignation.

Petzel oversaw what officials say is the largest health-care-delivery system in the U.S.

The VA operates 1,700 hospitals, clinics and other facilities around the country. They employ about 300,000 people and serve about 6.5 million veterans and other beneficiaries each year.



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