As he prepared to meet with President Obama later in the day, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki on Friday offered an apology and accepted responsibility for the healthcare scandal surrounding the agency.
"I can't explain the lack of integrity among some of the leaders in our healthcare facilities," he said, speaking to a conference on homeless veterans.
"This is something I rarely encountered during 38 years in uniform."
Shinseki's comments came soon before he was scheduled to meet with Obama at the White House amid bipartisan calls for his resignation.
The retired Army general announced steps he was taking to address instances in which VA staff covered up long waiting times for care. They include removing senior leaders at the Phoenix VA hospital, where the agency's inspector general found that 1,700 veterans were kept waiting for appointments, sometimes for months.
Other steps include suspending any bonuses for this year, contacting each of the 1,700 veterans who were kept off a waiting list in Phoenix "to bring them the care they need and deserve," and calling for congressional passage of legislation that would expand the VA secretary's authority to fire or demote senior staff for poor performance.
Shinseki said that his own review is confirming the findings of the inspector general's report, but he also said that "this situation can be fixed.
He acknowledged that the problems are systemic at the VA and said that "given the facts I now know, I apologize as the senior leader of the Department of Veterans Affairs."
"I was too trusting of some," he said. "I will not defend it because it is indefensible. But I can take responsibility for it, and I do."
He pledged to "continue to accelerate access to care for veterans nationwide" and said he would announce the result of his nationwide audit of VA facilities in coming days.