New Acting VA Secretary Faces Cultural Challenges

Eric Shinseki, secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, has resigned over the growing health care scandal. He said remaining in office would only distract from carrying out needed reforms.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Eric Shinseki, Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, walked into the Oval Office yesterday carrying with him an internal review that laid out the scheduling problems that have long plagued the VA. Veterans must wait far too long for appointments. Records have been manipulated to hide those problems.

NPR's Tamara Keith reports that 45 minutes after Mr. Shinseki's arrival, he left the White House no longer the secretary of the VA.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: The problems are not isolated, they're systemic. That's what the latest report and one released earlier in the week by the VA Inspector General made clear. President Obama told reporters Shinseki offered his resignation, and with considerable regret, Obama accepted it.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And I think Ric's judgment that he could not carry out the next stages of reform without being a distraction himself. And so, my assessment was unfortunately, that he was right.

KEITH: The new acting Secretary of the VA is Sloan Gibson, a former Army Ranger who has experience in the corporate and nonprofit worlds. He ran the USO, which sends performers into war zones to entertain the troops and helps out military families back at home.

He's only been at the VA as a Deputy Secretary for three months. Obama said Gibson will pick up where Shinseki left off, taking immediate action to address the scheduling problems.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

OBAMA: I want somebody who's spending every minute of every day figuring out - have we called every single veteran that's waiting? Have they gotten a schedule? Are we fixing the system?

KEITH: Beyond that though, the president and others say a cultural shift is required. Jeff Miller, a Republican from Florida, is Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.

REPRESENTATIVE JEFF MILLER: The most important thing today is to solve the problems that exist in the department. And that can only be done with transparency and accountability, and both have been lacking.

KEITH: The auditors conducting the internal review at the VA asked frontline staff - the ones booking appointments - what stood in the way of veterans getting timely care? And according to the report, the greatest single challenge was a lack of provider slots. In other words, there aren't enough doctors. It's a chronic problem that can't quickly or cheaply be fixed. And there are others.

Paul Reickhoff is the founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

PAUL REICKHOFF: What we're really concerned about is the long-term plan. There are deeply entrenched bureaucratic problems at every level of the VA, and getting rid of the Secretary Shinseki alone is not going to fix them. So what our members are hoping is that the country continues to pay attention after this scandal settles down, and they understand that there's going to be a long, hard road ahead to truly reform the VA.

KEITH: That's one thing just about everyone seems to agree on - the resignation of the VA secretary doesn't, by itself, fix the problems. Tamara Keith, NPR News, the White House.

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