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. Mr. Shinseki had asked for Dr. Petzel's 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.
Mr. 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 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 waiting lists and falsified patient appointment 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 Mr. Petzel's resignation, calling it "the pinnacle of disingenuous political doublespeak" since Dr. Petzel had been scheduled to retire this year anyway. The American Legion, which has called for Mr. Shinseki to resign, said "this move by VA is not a corrective action, but a continuation of business as usual."
The White House said President Barack Obama supported Mr. Shinseki's decision on Dr. Petzel and thanked Dr. Petzel for his service.
The announcement of Dr. Petzel's resignation came a day after Mr. Shinseki and Dr. Petzel were grilled at a four-hour hearing of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs.
Meanwhile, House Republicans scheduled a vote for Wednesday on legislation that would give Mr. Shinseki more authority to fire or demote senior executives and administrators.
Dr. Petzel had agreed to remain until the Senate confirmed a replacement. Mr. Obama this month announced his intent to nominate Dr. Jeffrey A. Murawsky to be undersecretary for health.