WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama said Friday 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 for the systemic problems plaguing the veterans’ health care system.
Obama planned a morning meeting 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 to resign from congressional Republicans and Democrats.
In a speech, Shinseki said Friday that the findings of the report were “totally unacceptable” and a “breach of trust” that he found irresponsible and indefensible. He announced a series of steps, including the ouster of senior officials at the troubled Phoenix health care facility, the initial focus on the investigation.
He concurred with the report’s conclusion that the problems extended throughout the 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, and there also are allegations that there have been as many as 40 deaths in connection with the Phoenix facility.
Shinseki said Friday the last 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 officer got 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 deserved,” the president in an interview airing Friday on the television talk show “Live! With Kelly and Michael.”
A clip from the interview was aired Friday 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.
Associated Press Writer Donna Cassata contributed to this story.