Obama sets timeline for VA review, defends his record on veterans

President Obama discussed the ongoing investigations into allegations against the Department of Veterans Affairs at a news conference on Wednesday, following his meeting with Sec. Eric Shinseki and White House Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors. (Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

President Obama said Wednesday that he had ordered his top deputies to complete their review of what has gone wrong in the Veterans Affairs’ health system within a month, adding that if veterans are not receiving the care they deserve, “I will not stand for it.”

Speaking to reporters at the White House briefing room, Obama said he had ordered VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki to complete his preliminary review of long wait times and false record-keeping at VA medical centers in several states by next week. His deputy chief of staff, Rob Nabors, who has been ordered to conduct a broader survey of the agency’s health system, will finalize his report within a month, the president added.

“So if these allegations prove to be true, it is dishonorable, it is disgraceful, and I will not tolerate it, period,” the president said, even as he said he would await the results of an inspector general’s probe before retaliating against anyone. “Once we know the facts, I assure you if there is misconduct it will be punished.”

And Obama delivered a strong endorsement of the embattled Shinseki, saying he had helped improve veterans’ care and services over the past five years and was dedicated to helping his fellow soldiers.

“Ric Shinseki has been a great soldier. He himself is a disabled veteran, and nobody cares more about our veterans than Ric Shinseki,” he said, noting that the secretary had worked on issues ranging from reducing the rate of homelessness among veterans to expanding access to the G.I. Bill. “So I know he cares about it deeply. And, you know, he has been a great public servant and a great warrior on behalf of the United States of America. We’re going to work with him to solve the problem, but I am going to make sure that there is accountability throughout the system after I get the full report.”

The president also defended his own record on veterans’ issues, noting that it has helped define his career and that his times with wounded soldiers and those in the field have been “the most searing moments of my presidency.”

“Taking care of our veterans and their families has been one of the causes of my presidency,” he said. “So today I want every veteran to know: We are going to fix whatever is wrong. And so long as I have the privilege of serving as commander in chief, I’m going to keep on fighting to deliver the care and the benefits and the opportunities that your families deserve — now and for decades to come.”

With the exception of a statement from Rep. John Barrow (D-Ga.), a moderate who called Wednesday for Shinseki to go, criticism on Capitol Hill shifted to Republicans questioning Obama’s latest response to the developing scandal.

“I am genuinely shocked that President Obama continues to avoid taking any sort of meaningful action to jump-start the reform process at the VA,” said Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), an Iraq war veteran. “While the president waits on a report, our veterans are stuck waiting for care.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) questioned the president’s commitment to addressing the controversy, saying in a statement that Obama had pushed harder to resolve problems with the botched federal online health insurance marketplace last fall.

“A crisis of the magnitude facing the VA on providing care to our veterans demands clear leadership from President Obama,” McConnell said. “Unfortunately, so far I have yet to hear from the president that he is treating the VA crisis with the seriousness it deserves.”

The House is expected to pass the VA Accountability Act later Wednesday even as groups representing the VA’s senior career workforce have warned that the legislation could violate federal employee due process rules and needlessly politicize the ranks of senior career government workers.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called Obama’s comments “wholly insufficient in addressing the fundamental, systemic problems” plaguing the VA health-care system.

“We need answers, leadership and accountability, none of which we’ve seen from the Obama Administration to date,” McCain said in a statement.

McCain also expressed support for a bill expected to be passed Wednesday in the House that would make it easier for the VA secretary to fire career employees or managers found to be hampering veterans’ care.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has introduced the Senate version of the VA Accountability Act, but Senate Democrats have not indicated whether they will allow a vote on it.

House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), who wrote the legislation, said Wednesday that “I couldn’t have been more disappointed” with Obama’s Wednesday morning remarks.

“Immediate action is required, but the president is urging patience,” Miller said in a statement. “As allegations of secret wait lists and manipulation of appointment wait times continue to surface at VA medical centers across the country, we simply can’t afford to wait for the results of another IG investigation or VA’s internal review when veterans may be at risk.”

Miller’s bill is expected to pass overwhelmingly with bipartisan support later Wednesday – around the time that national television newscasts begin airing on the East Coast. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has introduced the Senate version of the measure, but Senate Democrats have not indicated whether they will allow a vote on it.

Juliet Eilperin is a White House correspondent for The Washington Post, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.
Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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