Topics: Veterans Affairs

Veterans Affairs official resigns as White House says there's 'just a suggestion' of scandal

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Beltway Confidential,Opinion,White House,Joel Gehrke,Veterans Affairs,Jay Carney,Veterans,Eric Shinseki

President Obama's spokesman maintained to reporters that there was "just a suggestion" of a scandal at the Veterans Affairs Department -- and then, minutes later, a VA official who testified before Congress on Thursday about employees cooking the books resigned.

"You're saying there's a suggestion that something terrible happened in Phoenix, and that's under investigation; all we know is its a suggestion," White House press secretary Jay Carney told ABC's Jonathan Karl while defending Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki during Friday's press briefing. "We should just accept allegations as true without investigating them?"

And then, news broke that one of Shinseki's top aides had resigned. “Today, I accepted the resignation of Dr. Robert Petzel, Under Secretary for Health in the Department of Veterans Affairs," Shinseki said in a statement. "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. I am committed to strengthening veterans' trust and confidence in their VA healthcare system."

By the way, the VA announced in September that Petzel would retire in 2014. And the White House announced May 1 that it intended to nominate Jeffrey Murawsky, director of the VA's Illinois-based Great Lakes Health Care System, as his replacement.

That "timely access" line alludes to the topic of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee hearing Thursday, at which Shinseki and Petzel both testified, following reports that VA staff cooked the books to hide the fact that veterans were waiting for care beyond the time mandated by department regulations, with some patients even dying before receiving treatment.

Asked if such cooking of the books should be a firing offense, Petzel couldn't say. "I don't know whether that's the appropriate level of punishment," he told lawmakers.

Shinseki gave no hint that Petzel was on the way out during the hearing, when he was asked if he would "change [his] management team" in response to the scandal. In fact, he said ousters would be premature.

"I don't want to get ahead of myself or ahead of the [inspector general] here," Shinseki told Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. "I want to see the results, I want to see the results of the audit. And, if changes are required, I'll take those actions."

Editor's note: This story, originally posted May 16 at 3:41 p.m., has been updated to show that Petzel's replacement was nominated May 1.

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