(Adds reaction from lawmakers, veterans groups)
By Phil Stewart and David Alexander
WASHINGTON, May 16 (Reuters) - 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 failure.”
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 Petzel’s resignation.
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 facilities.
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)