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VA health official steps down over scandal

Under Secretary for Health at the VA, Dr. Robert Petzel, stepped down amid a growing scandal over falsified records.

By Gabrielle Levy
VA health official steps down over scandal
Eric K. Shinseki, Secretary of Veterans Affairs, testifies during a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing on the state of veteran's health care, in Washington, D.C. on May 15, 2014. UPI/Kevin Dietsch | License Photo

WASHINGTON, May 16 (UPI) -- Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki said he accepted the resignation of Robert Petzel Friday, who served as the undersecretary in charge of the beleaguered Veterans Health Administration.

Petzel appeared with Shinseki Thursday at a hearing before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee to address allegations staff at the VA's health centers had kept secret appointment lists to mask how long veterans were forced to wait to receive care.

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"As we know from the Veteran community, most Veterans are satisfied with the quality of their VA health care, but we must do more to improve timely access to that care," Shinseki said in a statement Friday thanking Petzel for 40 years serving in the VA system. "I am committed to strengthening Veterans' trust and confidence in their VA healthcare system."

A statement from the White House said President Obama "supports Secretary Shinseki's decision" to accept Petzel's resignation.

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At Thursday's hearing, senators from both sides of the aisle were furious over what they saw was the department's repeated failures to address the system-wide problems. While the VA has acknowledged such issues before, a report revealing the deaths of more than 40 Phoenix-area veterans who had been waiting for care blew it up into a national cause célèbre.

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Petzel acknowledged the "inexcusable" nature of the allegations, and promised accountability.

"We have been working continuously to try and identify where those sites are and what we need to do to prevent that from happening," he said. "I can't give you an example specifically, but if someone were found to be manipulating inappropriately the scheduling system, they would be disciplined."

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Petzel had already planned to retire this year, and on May 1st, the White House named Dr. Jeffrey Murawsky as the president's nominee to succeed him.

Since Petzel's retirement was already coming, it has done little to quiet demands for Shinseki's resignation from certain corners. The American Legion, the first group to call on Shinseki to step down, called Petzel's resignation "business as usual," rather than "a corrective action."

"His resignation now really won't make that much of a difference," said American Legion National Commander Daniel Dellinger. "Meanwhile, Secretary Shinseki and Under Secretary Hickey remain on the job."

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"They are both part of VA's leadership problem, and we want them to resign as soon as possible," Dellinger continued. "This isn't personal. VA needs a fundamental shift in leadership if it is to defeat its systemic lack of accountability."

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But the White House has stood by Shinseki, praising his decision to order an audit of all VA clinics. And House Speaker John Boehner, breaking from some members of his party who called for Shinseki to leave, said his departure would do little to solve the systematic problems that have plagued the VHA since before Shinseki's tenure.

"It will distract everyone's attention if Shinseki goes and we wait around for a new secretary, and I don't want that to happen," Boehner said. "I want to keep the focus on fixing the problem, not fixing the personality."

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