Veterans Affairs chief Eric Shinseki quits. Will that solve VA's problems?

In the end, combined pressures resulting from mismanagement at VA health facilities proved too much for Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to withstand. President Obama accepted his resignation Friday.

Charles Dharapak/AP
Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki pauses while speaking at a meeting of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, Friday, May 30, 2014, in Washington.

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki resigned under pressure on Friday as it became apparent that mismanagement at VA health facilities was more serious and more widespread than officials had previously acknowledged.

An interim report from the VA inspector general released on Wednesday concluded that hidden waiting lists and delays in obtaining care were common throughout the VA hospital system. These problems weren’t limited to the troubled Phoenix facility where they first became public, in part due to a whistle-blower’s efforts.

Democrats had begun calling for Secretary Shinseki to go, and in the end the combined pressures proved too much for him to withstand. After firing senior leaders at the Phoenix hospital and eliminating bonuses for officials systemwide, the former Army chief of staff then went to the Oval Office on Friday morning and offered to quit, too. President Obama accepted the resignation.

“It was [Shinseki’s] judgment that he could not carry out the next stages of reform without being a distraction himself.... I regret that he has to resign under these circumstances,” Mr. Obama said.

The question now is whether Shinseki’s resignation will quiet the political uproar surrounding the VA or whether Congress in general and Republicans in particular will continue to hammer on the administration for apparent shortcomings in veterans’ care.

In the short term, the latter course is more likely due to the timing of the political cycle.

The resignation of a cabinet official is in essence the admittance of a mistake, either by the official in question or by the administration at large. With midterm elections coming up, expect the heart-tugging subject of veterans’ health care to show up in races across the country. And after fall 2014, the presidential campaign will start to simmer. GOP hopefuls will probably try to use the VA as a symbol of larger administration mismanagement that (they hope) might stick to former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton as well.

Presumably the White House will at some point look for a permanent successor to Shinseki. (Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson will run the department in the interim.) That would require Senate hearings, a ready-made and TV-friendly format for the GOP to try to frame the VA’s problems in as negative a manner for Obama as possible.

In general, high-profile firings or resignations don’t help a president much in the polls, writes University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato in Politico.

“It can easily be counterproductive, bringing to the public’s attention in a dramatic fashion that there is trouble afoot, serious enough to have cost someone his or her job,” Mr. Sabato writes.

That said, both parties do have some incentives to cooperate to fix the VA’s problems. Pretty much every member of Congress has a substantial number of veterans in their district. VA facilities are dispersed throughout the country, in red and blue states. Veterans health care is not per se a partisan issue: Democrats and Republicans alike want those who served the nation to get the care they need and deserve.

The problem is that shortening wait times won’t be easy or cheap. The number of eligible vets has been rising sharply in the wake of long US conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The demand for VA primary-care appointments has gone up by 50 percent in the past three years, according to department documents cited by The New York Times. But the number of primary-care doctors in the VA system has increased by only 9 percent.

The VA pays doctors about 25 to 30 percent less than they can typically earn in private practice, making recruitment of new physicians in the current competitive market a difficult government task.

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