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Obama: Shinseki's exit lets VA focus on fixing waitlist problems


By Virgil Dickson
Posted: May 30, 2014 - 3:00 pm ET
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The resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki will allow the federal agency to focus on its ongoing patient waitlist crisis without distraction, President Barack Obama said Friday, shortly after the embattled secretary tendered his resignation.

The president accepted the resignation after meeting with Shinseki in the oval office Friday morning. Ultimately, Obama said, the decision to leave was the former secretary's. Shinseki felt he would be a distraction to the efforts to fix the issues, and Obama said he agreed.

The VA has faced weeks of hearings on issues related to system-wide problems delaying access to care as well as and secret wait lists.

The president tapped Sloan Gibson, who joined the Veterans Affairs Department just three months ago as the deputy secretary under Shinseki, to fill in on an acting basis while a search is mounted for a permanent replacement.

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Just days prior to the resignation, VA Inspector General Richard Griffin unveiled findings from an investigation that uncovered 1,700 veterans in need of care in a Phoenix VA facility were kept off the official waitlist and the average wait time was 115 days, although VA guidelines say veterans should get appointments within 14 days of their request. VA officials in Phoenix falsified data to hide the long waits, he said, adding that similar manipulation was “systemic” throughout the 150-hospital VA system serving around 9 million veterans a year.

Surprisingly, despite numerous claims from lawmakers at congressional hearings in recent weeks that the waitlist problem was a known issue, Obama said that before headlines broke about what was occurring at the Phoenix facility, the issue had not been on either his or Shinseki's radar.

“This was not something that we were hearing when I was traveling around the country — the particular issues of schedule,” Obama said at a news conference Friday. “This issue of scheduling is one that the reporting systems inside of the VHA did not surface to the level where (Shinseki) was aware of it or we were able to see it.”

Moving forward, one of the main goals will be see if the VA needs additional resources both in terms of funds and more medical providers, Obama said.

The National Association of Veterans Affairs Physicians & Dentists expressed regret that Shinseki resigned. But “there was less interaction with him than previous secretaries,” said Dr. Samuel Spagnolo, president of the trade group. “He tended to be very isolated.”

In terms of the president's indication that perhaps more doctors are needed to help right VA problems, Spagnolo said that might not be what's causing some of the waitlist problems. What's needed, he contended, is more support staff to free physicians up to spend more time treating patients.

“Changes need to be made to the system to make it more efficient for physicians,” Spagnolo said. “Physicians are now expected to act a lot like secretaries.”

Unlike their counterparts in private hospitals, VA doctors tend to not have support staff to help with administrative duties such as ordering lab work or making follow-up calls. Having to perform these duties themselves takes time away from seeing patients, Spagnolo said.

Follow Virgil Dickson on Twitter: @MHvdickson


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