WASHINGTON - US Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned on Friday after a political firestorm over widespread delays in veterans' medical care, leaving President Barack Obama with a freer hand to address systemic problems bedeviling the agency.
Obama announced that he accepted Shinseki's resignation "with considerable regret," after the two met on Friday to review initial findings of an internal audit of scheduling abuses at VA facilities across the country.
The audit found that patient appointment wait times had been misrepresented at least once at over 60 per cent of the 216 VA sites surveyed. It also said, with growing demand for services, a 14-day goal for medical appointments instituted under Shinseki was "simply not attainable" for the VA and should be scrapped.
Earlier this week, the VA's inspector general released a scathing report that confirmed allegations that staff in Phoenix had masked months-long wait times and were motivated by meeting the two-week targets used for salary and bonus awards.
Over the past few days, calls for Shinseki to step down grew louder. Dozens of both Democratic and Republican lawmakers said it was time for new leadership at the VA.
Obama praised Shinseki's military career and accomplishments in other veterans issues such as reducing homelessness, but said the 71-year-old retired Army general told him he "does not want to be a distraction" to fixing the VA's problems.
"That was Ric's judgment on behalf of his fellow veterans, and I agree. We don't have time for distractions. We need to fix the problem," Obama said.
Obama said Sloan Gibson, deputy secretary of the VA, would take the helm on an acting basis while he looked "diligently" for a new permanent VA secretary. Gibson, an Army veteran and former banker, had joined the VA just three months ago after running the USO military service organisation.
Some lawmakers and veterans service group said Gibson would be a credible candidate for permanent secretary because of his work transforming the USO to meet the needs of a new generation of military service members and veterans.
"Sloan is a great leader," said Tom Tarantino, policy director for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "If he wants the job, he would definitely be on that short list."
Others mentioned as possible successors to Shinseki include former Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno, former Virginia Senator Jim Webb, and Representative Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat who lost both legs in an Iraq war helicopter crash and is a former VA assistant secretary.
Members of Congress applauded Shinseki's departure as a step toward restoring confidence in the embattled agency that provides healthcare and other benefits to veterans.
"The denial of care to our veterans is a national disgrace and it's fitting that the person who oversees the Department of Veterans Affairs has accepted responsibility for this growing scandal and resigned," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
Representative Patrick Murphy, a Democrat whose south Florida district is home to many military retirees, said: "We think it's the right thing to do. We have to restore some faith and confidence in the VA and at this point, that was probably the only way to do it."