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VA’s Top Health Official Resigns Amid Scandal, Shinseki Announces (Updated)

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Updated 4:05 p.m. | The chief health official at the Department of Veterans Affairs resigned Friday, amid an ongoing scandal about wait times and deaths within the VA health system.  

“Today, I accepted the resignation of Dr. Robert Petzel, Under Secretary for Health in the Department of Veterans Affairs,” Secretary Eric Shinseki said in a statement. “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.”  

But one top congressional overseer called Shinseki’s announcement the “pinnacle of disingenuous political doublespeak.”  

Petzel’s resignation came just a day after he accompanied Shinseki to the Hill to testify before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, with the two officials facing a barrage of questioning and skepticism about the departmental response to allegations about widespread deficiencies in the VA health system, including secret lists and deaths connected to a hospital facility in Phoenix.  

“I am committed to strengthening Veterans’ trust and confidence in their VA healthcare system. I thank Dr. Petzel for his four decades of service to Veterans,” Shinseki said in his Friday statement.  

House Veterans Affairs’ Chairman Jeff Miller dismissed Shinseki’s characterization of Petzel’s departure as a “resignation.”  

“Today’s announcement from VA regarding Undersecretary for Health Robert Petzel’s ‘resignation’ is the pinnacle of disingenuous political doublespeak. Petzel was already scheduled to retire in 2014 and President Obama has already announced his intention to nominate Petzel’s replacement, so characterizing this as a ‘resignation’ just doesn’t pass the smell test,” the Florida Republican said in a statement.  

“Desperate to get ahead of a delays in care crisis that is growing by the day, yet apparently unwilling to take substantive actions to hold any of its leaders accountable for negligence that harms veterans, VA has resorted to what it does best: splitting semantic hairs to create the illusion of accountability and progress,” Miller added. “After yesterday’s out-of-touch performance from Sec. Shinseki, I was disappointed. Today, I am even more disillusioned.”  

Petzel had in fact already been on his way out of the VA health post. On May 1, the White House announced President Barack Obama planned to nominate Jeffrey A. Murawsky for the position. Murawsky has been the network director of the Veterans Integrated Service Network since 2009.  

The White House has come under increasing, bipartisan pressure to take further steps to rectify the failings at the VA, but White House spokesman Jay Carney on Friday reasserted President Barack Obama’s support for Shinseki, who has pledged not to resign from his post unless the president tells him it is time to go.  

Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., is among the lawmakers who have already called for Shinseki himself to resign.  

“News of Undersecretary Petzel’s resignation is not a surprise as he was expected to retire in the near future,” Moran said in a statement. “However, it is evidence of the dysfunction at the VA. It is important to note that Undersecretary Petzel was the only VA witness at the Senate VA Committee hearing who admitted knowledge of IG reports — he should not shoulder the blame for VA’s failures. Rather than the VA focusing on damage control, action should be taken immediately to change the bureaucratic culture of mediocrity at the VA and ensure the highest quality and most timely care for our nation’s heroes.”

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