Topics: Veterans Affairs

Top Veterans Affairs health official Robert Petzel resigns ahead of retirement

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Politics,White House,Brian Hughes,Barack Obama,Veterans Affairs,Health Care,PennAve,Military Budget,Veterans,Eric Shinseki

News that the top health official at the Department of Veterans Affairs stepped down Friday -- ahead of his retirement -- was met with skepticism from critics who say they want more answers about the agency's backlog of disability claims and a series of deaths at VA hospitals.

Dr. Robert Petzel's resignation as the VA's under secretary of health came a day after he and Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki came under stiff questioning by the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee over the problems at the VA. Shinseki said then he was "mad as hell" about the agency's failings.

The VA had announced last year that Petzel, who had been in his post since 2010, would retire in 2014 but would remain in the job until a successor could be confirmed. The White House announced on May 1 that it intended to nominate Jeffrey Murawsky, director of the VA's Illinois-based Great Lakes Health Care System, as the new under secretary for health.

“Today’s announcement" about "Petzel’s ‘resignation’ is the pinnacle of disingenuous political doublespeak," House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller said in a statement, adding, "characterizing this as a ‘resignation’ just doesn’t pass the smell test," and accusing the agency of "resort[ing] to what it does best: splitting semantic hairs to create the illusion of accountability and progress."

News about Petzel's departure "is not a surprise as he was expected to retire in the near future,” Sen. Jerry Moran said Friday afternoon. “However, it is evidence of the dysfunction at the VA."

But the Kansas Republican noted that Petzel was the only VA witness at Thursday's hearing who admitted he knew about VA inspector general's reports on some of the problems. "He should not shoulder the blame for VA’s failures," Moran said.

"I’m curious why Petzel, who announced months ago he was retiring, finally chose to resign the day after he was grilled in a Senate hearing," said Rep. Jackie Walorski. The Indiana Republican repeated her call for the resignations of both Shinseki and Allison Hickey, the VA's under secretary for benefits.

The White House has continued to express confidence in Shinseki's ability to lead the agency. It also assigned one of President Obama's most trusted advisers, Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors, to the VA to try to sort out the problems.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said late Friday that Obama supported Shinseki's decision to accept the resignation of his top health official.

But the American Legion, which earlier this month called on Shinseki to step down, also observed on its official Twitter account Friday afternoon that Petzel was already scheduled to retire this year, "so [his] resignation now won’t make much of a difference."

The group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America termed Petzel's departure a "cynical twist" in the VA saga. “We don't need the VA to find a scapegoat; we need an actual plan to restore a culture of accountability throughout the VA," the group's chief policy officer, Tom Tarantino, said in a statement.

To add to the cacophony of voices on the issue of the VA's future, the Army Times newspaper in an unsigned editorial published Friday called on Shinseki to step aside.

The Washington Examiner previously reported more than 1.5 million medical orders were destroyed at veterans hospitals without proof that patients received medical care. Another Examiner investigation found that medical appointments were purged at facilities in Los Angeles and Dallas to make the backlogs look smaller.

The Obama administration also has been on the defensive over allegations that hospital administrators in Phoenix destroyed records to cover up phony waiting lists for medical care. As many as 40 patients died there due to delays in care, according to allegations referred to the inspector general for investigation.

“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.

Petzel is the former head of the VA medical facilities in Minneapolis.

This story was originally posted at 3:03 p.m. Friday and has been updated since then.

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Brian Hughes

White House Correspondent
The Washington Examiner