A political boil that was threatening to damage the his party’s prospects in key mid-term congressional elections in November, President Barack Obama said on Thursday he had accepted the resignation of a key cabinet member who had become ensnared in a scandal over medical care for veterans.
Eric Shinseki gave up his post as Veterans Affairs Secretary, days after an investigation confirmed deep problems in America’s network of hospitals for military veterans that saw long delays in their receiving medical treatment and apparent efforts within the system to cover up what was going wrong. Few things are more dangerous politically in America than the notion of the country failing its returning veterans.
“A few minutes ago, Secretary Shinseki offered me his own resignation. With considerable regret, I accepted,” the president told a news conference at the White House this morning. He said that the current deputy secretary, Sloan Gibson, would take over temporarily while a permanent replacement was sought.
The position of Mr Shinseki, a quiet-spoken former Army General, had been growing increasingly perilous as details of the delays and the attempts to obscure them became public. At first it seemed they may have been limited to a facility in Phoenix, Arizona, where as many as 40 veterans may have died after being denied prompt care. But the probe has now spread to 42 Veterans Affairs facilities all around the country.
Most damaging was the growing parade of Democrats in Congress going on the record urging his resignation, many of whom are in tight re-election races in their states. The Democratic Party was already facing serious losses in November which could extend to their surrendering control of the Senate which would in turn severely restrict Mr Obama’s ability to carry through his agenda in the remainder of his term.
Several leading Republicans, including Senator John McCain, himself a highly decorated veteran of the Vietnam War, had also been piling on the pressure for Secretary Shinseki to go. The leader of a hospital network that appears to have become overwhelmed by the needs of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, Mr Shinseki had also lost the support of powerful veterans’ associations.
“Ric’s commitment to our veterans is unquestioned. His service to our country is exemplary,” a grave Mr Obama said. “He has worked hard to investigate and identify the problems with access to care. But, as he told me this morning, the VA needs new leadership to address them.”
Mr Shinseki earlier on Thursday offered a personal apology for the problems in the hospital system in an address to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. It is now apparent, however, that he had already decided by then to relinquish his post.