Embattled Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki fought for his job Friday, apologizing to the veterans and the nation for a breach of integrity at the agency and announcing a set of reforms including the firing of senior leaders at the Phoenix medical facility.
Speaking to a friendly audience at the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans annual conference, he spent most of his speech touting his accomplishments in cutting veterans homelessness by 24 percent during a tough economic time in which homelessness usually surges.
At the end of the remarks, Shinseki said he wanted to address the “elephant in the room.”
After the release of a preliminary VA inspectors general report earlier this week, he said the country now knows that the agency has systemic problems with providing care for its veterans.
“That breach of integrity is irresponsible, it is indefensible and unacceptable to me,” he said. “Leadership and integrity problems can and must be fixed — and now.”
He then announced the firing of senior leaders at the Phoenix medical facility and the suspension of VA bonuses for senior leaders. He also called on Congress to pass a bill that would make it easier to fire VA employees.
President Obama plans to meet with Shinseki in the Oval Office at 10:15 a.m. to get an update on his internal review of the VA problems and discuss his capacity to handle the crisis.
Shinseki, a Vietnam War veteran who lost part of his foot in a landmine blast, is a respected member of the veterans community. Throughout the VA crisis, Obama has given Shinseki high marks for his record on curbing VA homelessness and assisting veterans with their GI bill education benefits.
His standing among the VA community was on vivid display Friday. Upon entering the ballroom where he was scheduled to speak, Shinseki received a standing ovation accompanied by hoots and hollers.
He received another when he took the podium to speak.
In introducing Shinseki, an NCHV official described him as a "true friend of homeless veterans" and credited his commitment in helping reduce the number of homeless vets from about 75,000 in 2009 to approximately 58,000 today.
Shinseki also touted the department's expansion during his tenure of courts designed exclusively to handle cases against veterans. Each of the courts, he said, are attached to a VA medical center so judges can choose to sentence those found guilty of crimes to treatment programs rather than incarceration.
Under his direction, Shinseki said the department also has developed alternative therapies and treatment protocols that have helped to cut the use of high-dose opiates and nearly eliminate prescriptions of oxycotin to just 1 percent of cases "without putting people on the street to buy heroine."
Addressing the current VA scandal of extensive waiting lists and cooking of the books to try to show progress on decreasing the the claims backlog, Shinseki acknowledged that the past few weeks have been a "challenge for everyone at VA because we take caring for veterans so very seriously."
Calling the VA secretary post "the calling of his life," he apologized to veterans, their families and the American people, and acknowledged he was too trusting of VA leaders around the country. He said he can't explain the "lack of integrity," which he rarely encountered in his 38-year military career.
When the scandal broke through to the mainstream media in the last month, Shinseki recalled that he said at the time that he believed the problems with the appointment wait lists was isolated but now after conducting an internal review believes it is systemic.
Shinseki said he has initiated the process for the removal of the senior leaders of the Phoenix VA medical center, and will use all of the tools at his disposal to punish senior leaders responsible found to have "instigated or tolerated dishonorable or irresponsible scheduling practices," that no VA senior leader will receive a bonus or performance award this year.
In addition, he said the VA is contacting the 1700 veterans still waiting for appointments in Phoenix and is working to accelerate care for all veterans in and out of the VA nationwide.
He also pledged to announce the results of his internal VA nationwide audit in the coming days and called on Congress to support a bill by Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., who chairs the Veterans Affairs Committee, giving the VA secretary greater authority to fire senior agency leaders.
"This situation can be fixed...we can do this in the days ahead just as we have done in the past five years on veterans homelessness -- we can do this but we'll need all of your help."
"God bless our veterans, those especially in greatest need of our prayers and our help and may God continue to bless this wonderful country."
The Washington Examiner has also written extensively about the delays in veterans' medical care, breaking several stories about cooking the wait-time books as early as February 2013.
A five-part series "Making America's Heroes Wait" earned the Examiner's Mark Flatten the American Legion Fourth Estate Award for 2014.