The second in command at the Department of Veterans Affairs left Friday amid growing controversy over patient wait times and allegations of falsification of records.
However, the departure of Dr. Robert Petzel, the VA's undersecretary for health, almost immediately created a new controversy: VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said Petzel resigned, but congressional critics said he had announced his 2014 retirement in September.
Petzel left just a day after he had joined Shinseki in a contentious hearing before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
"Today's announcement from the VA regarding Undersecretary for Health Robert Petzel's 'resignation' is the pinnacle of disingenuous political doublespeak," Chairman Jeff Miller of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, said in a statement. "Petzel was already scheduled to retire in 2014 and President Obama has already announced his intention to nominate Petzel's replacement, so characterizing this as a 'resignation' just doesn't pass the smell test."
Dr. Jeffrey A. Murawsky will fill Petzel's post, according to a White House announcement made May 1. Murawsky has been the director of the Region 12 Veterans Integrated Service Network since 2009. Before moving to Washington, Petzel held a similar post from October 2002 to May 2009 as director of seven-state Region 23, based in Minneapolis.
Murawsky made almost $237,000 last year as director of a VA network that provides health care to about a million veterans in Illinois, Northwest Indiana, Michigan's Upper Peninsula and Wisconsin, according to a federal salary database. Petzel's salary was not listed.
"Desperate to get ahead of a delays-in-care crisis that is growing by the day, yet apparently unwilling to take substantive actions to hold any of its leaders accountable for negligence that harms veterans, VA has resorted to what it does best: splitting semantic hairs to create the illusion of accountability and progress," said Miller, R-Fla.
On Thursday, senators had grilled Petzel, who has been with the VA for four decades, over the agency's perceived inaction in reducing the wait times for veterans seeking VA care.
Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., described a phone call that Petzel made to regional VA officials nationwide after the Phoenix VA director was placed on leave. Burr said he was told that Petzel called the removal "political, and she's done nothing wrong."
Whistle-blowers in Phoenix have alleged that as many as 40 veterans may have died while awaiting appointments for care through the Phoenix VA Health Care System. They also have claimed document fraud in reporting wait times at Phoenix facilities.
The disclosures in Phoenix created a wave of similar revelations at other VA facilities across the nation, putting Shinseki and his top administrators in the line of political fire. Senators said Thursday that they now have information on problems at VA facilities in at least 10 states — including Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, New Mexico, Texas and Wyoming.
Lawmakers grilled both Petzel and Shinseki over documents showing that the agency had known for several years about ongoing patient-care delays and VA employees' efforts to cover up long wait times by gaming the VA scheduling system.
Shinseki's announcement at midday that he had accepted Petzel's resignation didn't directly address the wait-time controversy.
"As we know from the veteran community, most veterans are satisfied with the quality of their VA health care," Shinseki said. "But we must do more to improve the timely access to that care.
"I am committed to strengthening veterans trust and confidence in their VA health-care system," he said, echoing his testimony Thursday.
The White House's statement Friday also mentions President Barack Obama supporting Shinseki's decision to accept Petzel's resignation.
"The president and Secretary Shinseki take the allegations around misconduct very seriously, and Secretary Shinseki has committed to taking appropriate actions based on the findings of the independent VA Office of Inspector General investigation," the White House statement said.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who has been critical of Petzel, thinks the undersecretary's departure is not just a political move to shift blame on someone who was leaving anyway.
Flake said Friday that he had criticized Petzel to Shinseki earlier this month in a telephone call after Petzel said a preliminary review indicated no evidence to support allegations of misconduct at the Phoenix health center.
Petzel's remarks seemed "completely tone-deaf" to the scandal and an ongoing investigation by the VA's Office of Inspector General, Flake said.
"When I talked to Shinseki, I said I thought that his comments were unfortunate because they basically implied that all was clear and there were no problems," Flake said. "And Shinseki said that I was right, that it was unfortunate, and that he instructed all of his subordinates not to make such statements in the future.
"I could tell that Shinseki was annoyed. That statement by Petzel had given leadership a lot of grief because it basically was preempting the IG report," Flake said.
Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., a member of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee who has called for Shinseki's resignation, noted Friday that while the Petzel was retiring anyway, Shinseki's announcement was evidence of dysfunction at the VA.
"It is important to note that Undersecretary Petzel was the only VA witness at the Senate VA Committee hearing who admitted knowledge of IG reports. He should not shoulder the blame for VA's failures," Moran said Friday in a written statement.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., will deliver the weekly Republican address Saturday in which he'll discuss the widening VA probe.
Murawsky is also an associate professor of medicine at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine, according to a White House news release. Previously, he was chief medical officer for Region 12 of the Veterans Integrated Service Network from 2006 to 2009.
He also served as the associate manager for medicine and neurology services at Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital in Hines, Ill., about 10 miles west of Chicago, and as the associate program director for internal medicine at the combined program with Loyola University Medical Center in nearby Maywood, Ill.
John Raughter, national spokesman for the American Legion, said Friday that the group looks at Petzel's resignation as a "step towards addressing the leadership problem at the VA." Dan Dellinger. American Legion national commander, had called for the resignations of Petzel, Shinseki and Allison Hickey, VA undersecretary for benefits, about two weeks ago.
The Legion still stands behind Dellinger's call, which the Legion's executive committee later endorsed, that Shinseki and Hickey also must go so the VA can have greater accountability, transparency and accessibility for veterans health care, Raughter said.
A second veterans group, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, also said Petzel's departure is not enough.
"It was never about the individuals. It's about the culture of the VA," said Raughter of the American Legion. "We believe there is a cultural change needed at the top."
Contributing: Rebekah L. Sanders, The Arizona Republic