Obama, Veterans Affairs, and ‘Betrayal’

Revenge of a stump speech: A candidate’s words come back to haunt him as president.

  United States President Barack Obama arrives on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, D.C. following a day trip to Colorado Springs, Colorado to view damage from wildfires and to thank the responders battling the blazes on Friday, June 29, 2012. Credit: Ron Sachs / Pool via CNP United States President Barack Obama arrives on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, D.C. following a day trip to Colorado Springs, Colorado to view damage from wildfires and to thank the responders battling the blazes on Friday, June 29, 2012.  
National Journal
Major Garrett
May 20, 2014, 8 a.m.

Run­ning for pres­id­ent in May of 2008, then-Sen. Barack Obama de­livered a stem-winder on mis­man­age­ment of vet­er­ans care un­der Pres­id­ent George W. Bush, re­call­ing the story of an 89-year-old South Car­o­lina vet­er­an who com­mit­ted sui­cide after be­ing re­peatedly denied ac­cess to health care.

“How can we let this hap­pen?” Obama thundered in front of a po­di­um in Char­le­ston, W.Va., that read, “A Sac­red Trust; Sup­port our Vet­er­ans.” “How is that ac­cept­able in the United States of Amer­ica? The an­swer is, it’s not. It’s an out­rage. And it’s a be­tray­al, a be­tray­al of the ideals that we ask our troops to risk their lives for.”

Well. Well.

A vet­er­an com­mit­ted sui­cide be­cause he couldn’t ob­tain VA care. In South Car­o­lina. The Demo­crat­ic front-run­ner for the White House called it an out­rage. And yet, when at least six vet­er­ans died due to delayed ac­cess to colono­scop­ies in Columbia, S.C., neither Obama nor his Vet­er­ans Af­fairs De­part­ment said a word. The deaths were first re­por­ted in April. At a sub­sequent field hear­ing in Columbia, one vet­er­an test­i­fied he con­trac­ted can­cer be­cause VA doc­tors ig­nored pleas for a colono­scopy and mis­dia­gnosed severe rectal bleed­ing and pain as hem­or­rhoids. The re­sponse from Vet­er­ans Af­fairs of­fi­cials and, by ex­ten­sion, Obama? We’ll get back to you.

And yet, when at least six vet­er­ans died due to delayed ac­cess to colono­scop­ies in Columbia, S.C., neither Obama nor his Vet­er­ans Af­fairs De­part­ment said a word.

All this be­fore the lar­ger news that delays in ac­cess to health care in Phoenix may have con­trib­uted to the deaths of up to 40 vet­er­ans. As with the tales of woe for vet­er­ans in South Car­o­lina, then and now, the Phoenix story was far from isol­ated. Be­fore it there was Mem­ph­is. Pitt­s­burgh. At­lanta. And St. Louis.

All this, giv­ing rise to a word Obama might re­mem­ber.

“Our con­tract with our ser­vice­men and wo­men is a sac­red trust. Our men and wo­men in uni­form up­hold their end of the con­tract, some­times at the cost of their own lives,” GOP Sen. John Thune of South Dakota said on the Sen­ate floor Tues­day. “For us to fail to up­hold ours is a dis­grace and a be­tray­al of their sac­ri­fice.”

The House Vet­er­ans’ Af­fairs Com­mit­tee has con­duc­ted lengthy, prob­ing bi­par­tis­an over­sight of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs activ­it­ies, fre­quently con­front­ing si­lence or bur­eau­crat­ic stalling. The com­mit­tee un­an­im­ously sub­poenaed emails and doc­u­ments from more than two dozen of­fi­cials in the Phoenix VA fa­cil­ity. On Monday it re­ceived a paltry sampling of doc­u­ments from one of­fi­cial. Com­mit­tee Chair­man Jeff Miller of Flor­ida said the re­sponse was “in­ad­equate” and deepened his sus­pi­cions that the VA “had something to hide.”

I spoke at length with Miller about his in­vest­ig­a­tions and about Vet­er­ans Af­fairs Sec­ret­ary Eric Shin­seki, whom he has cri­ti­cized but has not said should resign.

“I have no sym­pathy for the sec­ret­ary,” Miller told me. “He’s had his abil­ity to leave his im­pres­sion on the agency and hasn’t done so. The bur­eau­cracy knows it will be there longer than any sec­ret­ary. It just has to get past to the next per­son and then they [the bur­eau­crats] can slow-roll the pro­cess all over again.”

Miller ac­know­ledges that vet­er­ans are pleased with the health care they re­ceive once in­side the VA sys­tem. It’s the “clam­or­ing” for care and the deaths and sick­ness re­lated to the mirage-like qual­ity of ac­cess to health care that in­furi­ates him.

“Shin­seki still be­lieves the VA is serving vet­er­ans in a timely man­ner. It’s a con­stant ex­cuse we hear. It’s worn thin a long time ago. His people are not serving him well. He’s en­sconced in the cent­ral of­fice and no one is provid­ing real-time in­form­a­tion from the field. They don’t want to tell him the bad news.”

As for Obama?

“The pres­id­ent has been nowhere to be found,” Miller said. “The White House truly thought this would go away over time. But the pres­sure is mount­ing. Whistle-blowers are com­ing for­ward. They see strength in num­bers.”

I asked what Miller wanted from the White House.

“When mold was dis­covered in Wal­ter Reed, there was im­me­di­ate and swift ac­tion. There was a bi­par­tis­an com­mis­sion ap­poin­ted to get to the bot­tom of it. The sec­ret­ary of the Army, the head of Wal­ter Reed, and the former head of Wal­ter Reed were all re­lieved of duty. Now you see a lack of an abil­ity to make a de­cision to hold people ac­count­able.”

That’s why the House on Wed­nes­day will con­sider — and likely pass with a bi­par­tis­an ma­jor­ity — Miller’s De­part­ment of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs Man­age­ment Ac­count­ab­il­ity Act. It would give Shin­seki the power to fire or de­mote seni­or ex­ec­ut­ive ser­vice man­agers for poor per­form­ance or mis­man­age­ment. Shin­seki op­poses the bill. The White House is try­ing to strike a semi-neut­ral pose, back­ing the bill’s “goals” but not of­fer­ing to sign it lest it cast Shin­seki farther out to sea (bring­ing in Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors to su­per­vise cur­rent VA in­vest­ig­a­tions and re­views was, for now, sting­ing re­buke enough).

Miller re­jects Shin­seki’s con­ten­tion that he has all the bur­eau­crat­ic power he needs to fire and de­mote bad act­ors.

“I have been wait­ing since Janu­ary for them to tell us what dis­cip­lin­ary ac­tions they took,” Miller said. “They won’t give us the in­form­a­tion. There’s been no dis­cip­lin­ary ac­tion.”

Not for Mem­ph­is. Or At­lanta. Or St. Louis. Or Pitt­s­burgh. Or South Car­o­lina.

Sounds like an out­rage and a be­tray­al.

Doesn’t it, Mr. Pres­id­ent?

The au­thor is Na­tion­al Journ­al cor­res­pond­ent-at-large and chief White House cor­res­pond­ent for CBS News. He is also a dis­tin­guished fel­low at the George Wash­ing­ton Uni­versity School of Me­dia and Pub­lic Af­fairs.

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