WHITE HOUSE - Former Army Gen. Eric Shinseki, head of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, has resigned, saying he did "not want to be a distraction" after a government investigation confirmed widespread shortcomings in the health care the nation provides its military veterans.
President Barack Obama announced the resignation in a White House address Friday morning, saying he accepted it "with considerable regret."
He has appointed Sloan Gibson, Shinseki's deputy, to be the interim leader for the VA, which provides care to roughly 6.5 million veterans a year. Gibson came onboard at the VA in February after leading the United Services Organization. Better known as the USO, the private nonprofit organization supports troops and their families with programs, services and entertainment.
Shinseki had been under pressure to resign following revelations of lengthy waits for appointments and of a coverup in scheduling delays. According to an internal audit, wait times averaged 115 days at one hospital.
Critics say the practice endangered the lives of thousands of veterans, including those returning from recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Shinseki apologized for the scheduling abuses Friday, saying "we now know that VA has a systemic, totally unacceptable lack of integrity within some of our veterans' health facilities." Taking responsibility for the situation, he said he originally had thought the problems were isolated.
"Ric’s commitment to our veterans is unquestioned. I am grateful for his service." —President Obama on Secretary Shinseki— The White House (@WhiteHouse) May 30, 2014
Obama did not say whether the Justice Department will pursue criminal charges.
Shinseki already had announced several changes, including the removal of leaders at the VA center in Phoenix, Arizona, where the scandal first came to light. He also suspended bonuses for some senior officials.
More changes are likely, Obama said, saying the VA's information system probably would need to be upgraded. The president also said he would expect "changes in the culture within the VA."
Until last week, Obama had said he had confidence in the ability of Shinseki - a decorated war hero and retired four-star general who himself had been wounded in battle - to lead the agency. The president waited until getting audit reports and hearing from Shinseki personally before deciding whether he should go.
In his announcement, Obama praised Shinseki's service, saying he had championed veterans' care, especially in areas including traumatic brain injury, Agent Orange and women's specialized treatment. Shinseki also cut veteran homelessness by 24 percent, Obama said.
A spokesman for the advocacy group Disabled American Veterans also lauded Shinseki, himself a wounded vet, as "an honorable man."
Sgt. Joe Violante, the group's legislative director, said the organization did not call for his resignation because "we had confidence in his ability to turn things around." The group will support Shinseki's successor, he added.
Violante made his comments Friday morning in an interview with CNN, whose investigations helped bring the VA's problems to light.
Members of Obama's own Democratic Party had joined calls by his Republican adversaries to fire Shinseki. But Republican House speaker John Boehner said politics was not a factor.
“I think there's broad bipartisan concern about what's happening at the VA and the treatment that's being denied to our veterans," Boehner said Friday. "These people put their lives on the line for our country and they deserve better, much better, than they're getting today.”