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Eric Shinseki apologizes for "systemic" VA hospital problems

Last Updated May 30, 2014 10:15 AM EDT

Embattled Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki apologized Friday for "systemic" problems at the nation's VA hospitals and, despite calls for his resignation, pressed forward with actions to deal with the scandal.

Shinseki announced during a speech to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans in Washington, D.C., that he has initiated the process to remove the leaders of the Phoenix VA medical center, where it's alleged as many as 40 veterans died while waiting for care.

An investigation from the VA's inspector general released Wednesday found that about 1,700 veterans in need of care were "at risk of being lost or forgotten" after being kept off an official waiting list. The report concluded that problems were not isolated to Phoenix and extended throughout the VA hospital system.

"I said when this situation began weeks to months ago, that I thought the problem was limited and isolated because I believed that," Shinseki said. "I no longer believe that. It is systemic."

"So given the facts I now know, I apologize as the senior leader of the Department of Veterans Affairs," he added before announcing steps he's taking to deal with the problems in Phoenix and the rest of the VA medical system.

"I've initiated the process for the removal of the senior leaders of the Phoenix VA medical center," Shinseki said, adding that no VA senior executive "will receive any type of performance award for 2014."

Meanwhile, President Obama summoned Shinseki to the White House for a meeting Friday morning, amid mounting calls for his resignation.

In a interview that aired Friday on "Live! With Kelly and Michael", Mr. Obama said he will ask Shinseki whether he is "prepared and has the capacity" to fix sweeping problems in the system.

"I'll have a serious conversation with him about whether he thinks that he is prepared and has the capacity to take on the job of fixing it, because I don't want any veteran to not be getting the kind of services that they deserve," the president said.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Thursday that "When it comes to the overall issue... we are focused on getting to the root of the problem and determining the full scope of the problem."

When asked whether Mr. Obama still has confidence in Shinseki, Carney would not give a simple yes or no answer, but said, "The president believes and is confident Secretary Shineski has served his nation admirably... [and] he has accomplished some very important things as secretary of Veterans Affairs" such as they include extending education benefits and reducing veteran homelessness.

Fourteen Senate Republicans along with 12 Senate Democrats aren't waiting for investigations into the problems to conclude and have called on Shinseki to step down, including nine Democrats who are up for re-election this November, some of whom have been targets of recent Republican attacks over the VA issue.