Obama Vows to Hold Veterans Affairs Employees Accountable if Allegations Are True

The president called reports of mismanagement of veterans’ medical care “disgraceful,” but stands by the department’s secretary.

National Journal
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Marina Koren and Sarah Mimms
May 21, 2014, 7:18 a.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama prom­ised pun­ish­ment for Vet­er­ans Af­fairs De­part­ment em­ploy­ees who are found to be in­volved in the grow­ing scan­dal over lengthy wait times for and fals­i­fied doc­u­ments of vet­er­ans’ med­ic­al care.

“When I hear al­leg­a­tions of mis­con­duct, any mis­con­duct, wheth­er it’s al­leg­a­tions of VA staff cov­er­ing up long wait times or cook­ing the books, I will not stand for it,” Obama said Tues­day. “Not as com­mand­er in chief but also not as an Amer­ic­an. None of us should. So if these al­leg­a­tions prove to be true, it is dis­hon­or­able. It is dis­grace­ful. And I will not tol­er­ate it, peri­od.”

Obama made the re­marks after a private meet­ing Wed­nes­day morn­ing with Vet­er­ans Af­fairs Sec­ret­ary Eric Shin­seki and Deputy White House Chief of Staff Rob Nabors. At least 26 VA fa­cil­it­ies are fa­cing al­leg­a­tions that em­ploy­ees have been cook­ing the books to mask long wait­ing times for vet­er­ans seek­ing med­ic­al care, ac­cord­ing to the Of­fice of the In­spect­or Gen­er­al. The of­fice has opened an in­vest­ig­a­tion in­to the scan­dal, and Nabors has been tapped to as­sist in the probe.

“I know that people are angry and want swift reck­on­ing. I sym­path­ize with that,” Obama said. “We have to let the in­vest­ig­at­ors do their job and get to the bot­tom of what happened. Our vet­er­ans de­serve to know the facts.”

Obama said that em­ploy­ees at VA cen­ters who have ma­nip­u­lated or fals­i­fied doc­u­ments must be held ac­count­able. “Once we know the facts, I as­sure you, if there is mis­con­duct, it will be pun­ished,” he ad­ded.

The state­ment marks the first time that the pres­id­ent has per­son­ally ad­dressed the grow­ing scan­dal at the Vet­er­ans Af­fairs De­part­ment. The first res­ults of the in­vest­ig­a­tion are ex­pec­ted to come next week, while Nabors will re­lease a full re­port in June.

White House Chief of Staff Denis Mc­Donough said over the week­end that Obama was “mad­der than hell” over al­leg­a­tions that VA of­fi­cials were falsi­fy­ing re­cords to mask long wait­ing times for vet­er­ans seek­ing doc­tors’ ap­point­ments, some of whom re­portedly died be­fore they could re­ceive med­ic­al care.

But the White House has stood by Shin­seki, even as vet­er­ans groups and a few mem­bers of Con­gresshave called for the sec­ret­ary’s im­me­di­ate resig­na­tion. Obama high­lighted some of the “pro­gress” the de­part­ment has made un­der Shin­seki’s ten­ure Wed­nes­day, in­clud­ing its work to re­duce home­less­ness among vet­er­ans. “He has been a great pub­lic ser­vant and a great war­ri­or on be­half of the United States of Amer­ica,” the pres­id­ent said of Shin­seki, adding that the four-star gen­er­al has “put his heart and soul” in­to the job. “We’re go­ing to work with him to solve the prob­lem.”

Nabors is head­ing to Phoenix, where the scan­dal ori­gin­ated last month after CNN re­por­ted that of­fi­cials there were keep­ing secret wait­ing lists while at least 40 vet­er­ans died without med­ic­al care. Nabors is sched­uled to meet with loc­al VA lead­ers there.

Sen. John Mc­Cain, R-Ar­iz., was highly crit­ic­al of Obama’s com­ments.”Since the 2008 cam­paign, he’s been say­ing the same thing and do­ing noth­ing,” Mc­Cain said, adding that he is not ask­ing for Shin­seki’s resig­na­tion. “The pres­id­ent of the United States’ com­ments, as I pre­dicted, [amoun­ted to] a lot of rhet­or­ic and no ac­tion.”

Sen­ate Vet­er­ans Af­fairs Com­mit­tee Chair­man Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who met with Mc­Donough on Wed­nes­day, said he sup­ports the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ef­forts to com­bat the is­sue.

“If you ask any­body, they will tell you that the budgets the VA has re­ceived in re­cent years from the pres­id­ent have been good budgets. I don’t think any­one will ar­gue against that,” Sanders said. “The ques­tion is, giv­en two wars and giv­en the fact that you have 200,000 people com­ing home with PTSD and TBI and loss of legs and loss of hear­ing, is it enough? And secondly, is the VA al­loc­at­ing its re­sources in the the most ef­fect­ive way?”