(Adds reaction from lawmakers, veterans groups)
By Phil Stewart and David Alexander
WASHINGTON May 16 The top health official at
the Department of Veterans Affairs resigned on Friday amid a
scandal over allegations of deadly healthcare delays, but
critics dismissed the gesture as "damage control" because he
planned to retire this year anyway.
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said in a statement he accepted
the resignation of Dr. Robert Petzel, VA undersecretary for
health, and acknowledged the need to ensure more timely
treatment of America's military veterans. The White House said
President Barack Obama supported Shinseki's decision.
Petzel's resignation, which came a day after he and Shinseki
testified before Congress, appeared unlikely to calm the anger
over the scandal, with one critic rejecting the move as "damage
control" and the American Legion renewing its call for Shinseki
himself to step down.
"Characterizing this as a 'resignation' just doesn't pass
the smell test," said Republican Congressman Jeff Miller, the
chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.
Tom Tarantino, the policy chief for Iraq and Afghanistan
Veterans of America, said: "We don't need the VA to find a
scapegoat. We need an actual plan to restore a culture of
accountability throughout the VA."
American Legion National Commander Daniel Dellinger said the
resignation "is not a corrective action but a continuation of
business as usual," adding the organization wanted Shinseki and
Allison Hickey, the undersecretary for benefits, to resign.
"Dr. Petzel was already scheduled to retire this year so his
resignation now won't really make that much of a difference,"
Dellinger added. "VA needs a fundamental shift in leadership if
it is to defeat its systemic lack of accountability."
Republican Senator Jerry Moran of Kansas described Petzel's
resignation as "damage control" and said the Veterans Health
Administration chief "should not shoulder the blame for VA's
Petzel's resignation came a day after he appeared alongside
Shinseki at a hearing about accusations that VA medical
facilities in Phoenix covered up long wait times for patients,
including 40 who died while awaiting care.
In announcing the decision, Shinseki stopped short of
blaming Petzel for delays and did not explicitly say why he
resigned. In a statement last September, the VA said Petzel
planned to retire in 2014 and the department was taking steps to
find candidates to replace him.
Two VA officials declined to elaborate on the reason for
The VA has put three senior officials in Phoenix on
administrative leave after doctors there said they were ordered
to hold veterans' names for months on a secret waiting list
until a spot opened up on an official list that met the agency's
two-week waiting time goals.
Allegations have been reported about similar cover-up
schemes at VA medical facilities in at least seven other cities.
The agency runs the largest U.S. healthcare group, overseeing
some 1,700 hospitals, clinics, nursing homes and other
Shinseki has ordered a nationwide audit of appointment and
scheduling practices at all VA hospitals and clinics.
(Additional reporting by David Lawder and Thomas Ferraro;
editing by Bill Trott and Diane Craft)