Obama defends his veterans policies and vows accountability in health-care scandal

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 delivered a forceful defense of his veterans policies Wednesday, saying that caring for veterans and their families is “one of the causes of my presidency” and vowing to punish those responsible for long wait times and other serious problems at military medical centers.

Speaking at a hastily scheduled White House news conference, Obama sought to reassure lawmakers, veterans and others outraged over allegations that staffers at some Department of Veterans Affairs facilities had doctored records to cover up lengthy wait times and that some patients had died while waiting for care. He said an investigation into allegations of wrongdoing would be completed by next month and that those responsible for problems would be held accountable.

But Obama, who along with his wife has made veterans issues a centerpiece of his administration, also defended his overall attention to veterans issues. He said a backlog in disability claims at VA had been reduced and described the wait-time problem as “a problem for decades, and it’s been compounded by more than a decade of war.”

“So if these allegations prove to be true, it is dishonorable, it is disgraceful, and I will not tolerate it, period,” the president said, adding, “Once we know the facts, I assure you if there is misconduct it will be punished.”

The remarks illustrate the perils Obama faces if he cannot get a handle on the expanding VA allegations, which now include the stealing of pharmaceuticals from VA clinics as well as the falsification of appointment records. The scandal threatens to echo the administration’s botched handling of the HealthCare.gov Web site last fall — another instance in which one of Obama’s signature achievements was undermined by managerial ineptitude and which sowed doubts about the government’s ability to serve the needs of ordinary citizens.

The House voted 390 to 33 Wednesday to pass the VA Accountability Act, which would make it easier for the VA secretary to fire career employees or managers found to be hampering veterans’ care. Groups representing VA’s senior career workforce warned that the measure could violate federal employee due-process rules and needlessly politicize the ranks of senior career government workers.

Republicans in Congress, as well as some veterans representatives, said the president needed to do more to address the problems at VA.

“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.), a veteran of the Iraq war. “While the president waits on a report, our veterans are stuck waiting for care.”

The VA inspector general is looking into allegations by a former Phoenix clinic director that up to 40 veterans died while waiting for treatment at a VA hospital while staffers disguised the wait times patients faced.

The inspector general said at a Senate hearing last week that his initial probe has found no evidence that delays caused the deaths. VA has tentatively concluded that extended wait times are a problem at no more than one-sixth of the nation’s 150 VA medical facilities, according to people who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal agency deliberations.

The president said time spent with wounded troops had been “the most searing moments of my presidency.” He said he ordered VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki to complete a preliminary review of long wait times and false record-keeping at VA medical centers by next week. Obama’s deputy chief of staff, Rob Nabors, will finalize a separate report on a broader survey of the agency’s health system within a month, the president said.

But Obama also delivered a strong endorsement of the embattled VA director. Shinseki, the first Asian American to reach the rank of four-star general, did two combat tours of duty in Vietnam, receiving a Purple Heart with an Oak Leaf Cluster for a combat injury that cost him much of his right foot.

“Ric Shinseki has been a great soldier. He himself is a disabled veteran, and nobody cares more about our veterans than Ric Shinseki,” Obama said. “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.”

That defense put the president at odds with some veterans groups who have called for Shinseki’s ouster. American Legion Executive Director Peter Gaytan pointed to an April 26, 2010, memo from a Shinseki underling warning facility employees against using “inappropriate scheduling practices sometimes referred to as ‘gaming strategies’ ” to improve the appearance of a clinic’s performance.

“We don’t need to wait for an investigation,” Gaytan said in an interview. “This document is VA leadership admitting that VA employees are inappropriately entering appointment information.”

Phillip Carter, director of the military, veterans and society program at the Center for a New American Security, said demographic pressures and decisions by the previous administration also contributed to Shinseki’s predicament.

“The combination of 13 years of war, the aging of the veteran population in general and cumulative failures over the past 13 years to plan for this wartime and aging veterans population have all landed on this secretary’s desk,” said Carter, who served as national veterans director for Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.

Carter said the facility in Phoenix, which is at the center of the latest controversy, has the second-largest veterans population in the country after Los Angeles, with 275,000 veterans living in Maricopa County. Congress must approve any new leases for VA facilities and the agency often is reluctant to send veterans to private clinics, he said.

The fact that many Americans, including aging veterans, are having trouble finding work has also increased their reliance on VA, according to Scott Lilly, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.

“The VA is really picking up some of the problems of greater society that don’t really have to do with service-related issues,” he said.

Rep. John Barrow (D-Ga.) and David Scott (D-Ga.) on Wednesday became the first Democratic lawmakers to call for Shinseki’s ouster, joining a handful of Republicans who have done so. But most criticism on Capitol Hill has shifted in recent days from the VA secretary to the president.

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

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has introduced a Senate version of the bill approved by the House Wednesday, but Senate Democrats have not indicated whether they will allow a vote on it.

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

“Immediate action is required, but the president is urging patience,” Miller said in a statement, adding that “we can’t afford to wait,” because veterans’ lives may be at risk.

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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