WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama said today he plans to have a "serious conversation" with Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki about whether he can stay in his job as the agency head apologized publicly for systemic problems plaguing the veterans' health care system.
Obama was meeting today morning with the retired four-star general just two days after a scathing internal report found broad and deep-seated problems in the sprawling health care system, which provides medical care to about 6.5 million veterans annually. The report prompted loud calls for Shinseki's resignation from congressional Republicans and Democrats.
In a speech this morning, Shinseki said the problems outlined in the report were "totally unacceptable" and a "breach of trust" that he found irresponsible and indefensible. He announced he would take a series of steps to respond, including ousting senior officials at the troubled Phoenix health care facility, the initial focus of the investigation.
He concurred with the report's conclusion that the problems extended throughout the VA's 1,700 health care facilities nationwide, and said that "I was too trusting of some" in the VA system.
Treatment delays have been documented in investigative reports. There also are allegations that there have been as many as 40 deaths linked to the Phoenix facility.
Shinseki said today the past several weeks have been "challenging" but that his agency takes caring for veterans seriously.
"I can't explain the lack of integrity," he told a homeless veterans group. "I will not defend it, because it is not defensible." The beleaguered Cabinet official received a standing ovation and loud applause.
Obama has been under pressure to fire Shinseki, with an increasing number of Republicans and politically vulnerable Democrats pressing for new leadership at the VA.
"I'll have a serious conversation with him about whether he thinks he is prepared and has the capacity to take on the job of fixing it. I don't want any veteran to not be getting the kind of services they deserve," the president in an interview airing toiday on the television talk show "Live! With Kelly and Michael."
A clip from the interview was aired today on ABC's Good Morning America.
An inspector general's report found that about 1,700 veterans in need of care were "at risk of being lost or forgotten" after being kept off an official waiting list.
The report confirmed earlier allegations of excessive waiting times for care in Phoenix, with an average 115-day wait for a first appointment for those on the waiting list - nearly five times as long as the 24-day average the hospital had reported.
"This situation can be fixed," Shinseki told an audience of several hundred people from around the nation who have been working with the VA on helping homeless veterans. "Leadership and integrity problems can and must be fixed - and now."
He said the government would use all authorities it has against those "who instigated or tolerated" the falsification of wait time records and that performance on achieving wait time targets will no longer be considered in employee job reviews. He also asked Congress to support a bill by Vermont Indepenent Sen. Bernie Sanders that would give the department more authority to remove senior government employees who are in leadership positions.
Those attending his speech in a downtown Washington hotel were overwhelmingly friendly, supportive of Shinseki partly for his work in sharply decreasing homelessness among veterans. They gave him a long standing ovation, whistling and hooting when he entered the room and again before and after he spoke.
"He has made a difference. I'm living it," said James Wheatley, a 20-year veteran of the Army who now works at mental health facility that helps veterans in Indianapolis, In.