President Obama held a briefing at the White House on May 21 to address the VA scandal. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
President Obama on Wednesday spoke publicly of the growing scandal over questionable scheduling practices at Veterans Affairs medical centers, saying the allegations, if true, are “dishonorable and distasteful” and pledging to punish those responsible.
But he stopped short of announcing any firings or resignations in the expanding investigation, saying he will wait for the outcome of several ongoing reviews before deciding who should be held accountable.
Following a meeting with besieged Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki and White House Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors, who has been put in charge of an overall review of the VA health system, Obama said he plans to continue to “systematically fix the problems,” a pledge he made when entering office.
“I want to bring the VA system into the 21st century, which is not an easy task,” Obama said.
“Wait problems have always been a problem at VA, whether in regards to claims, to getting appointments. Some facilities do this better than others. In some cases, they were given a goal to schedule appointments within 14 days. It’s not clear to me whether these were given the tools to get this done,” he added.
The president called Shinseki a “great public servant,” but he went on to say that depending on the outcome of reviews — which include an investigation into fraudulent scheduling practices in Phoenix, an audit of appointment scheduling at all VA health facilities and an overall review of VA health — he expected that Shinseki might not want to remain in his Cabinet position.
“No one cares about veterans more than Ric Shinseki,” Obama said. “On homelessness, on the Post-9/11 GI Bill, on the backlog, he has put his heart and soul into it. ... I want to see the results of the reports first and I want to see accountability.”
Last week, Shinseki told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee he had no plans to resign.
He also said an audit of hospital scheduling practices had uncovered at least “concerns” at 10 VA facilities; the Associated Press reported late Tuesday that the number of facilities under investigation has grown to 26.
Both the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs committees have held oversight hearings in the past decade on scheduling problems and access to care at VA medical centers, with whistleblowers and Government Accountability Office analysts testifying that some VA officers were fudging the numbers to meet departmentwide goals.
In 2010, a senior VA official issued a memo warning regional directors to stop “gaming the system.” At some facilities, schedulers did not know how to use the system accurately while others admitted changing dates, fudging the numbers and backdating appointments to align with VA central office goals.
But the problems reached crisis level last month when a retired physician from the Phoenix VA sent letters to CNN and the Arizona Republic alleging that the facility’s off-the-books wait list may have led to the deaths of at least 40 patients.
Similar reports have since surfaced in VA facilities in Texas, Wyoming, North Carolina, Florida, Missouri and elsewhere.
A VA Inspector General official said last week his office has reviewed 17 of the cases at Phoenix and has not found any evidence that delays in care contributed to patient deaths.
Last week during testimony before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, Shinseki called his service as secretary a “privilege,” noting that he is able to “care for people I went to war with many years ago, and people I have sent to war, and people who raised me in the profession when I was a youngster.”
The American Legion on May 5 called for the resignation of Shinseki and two other top VA leaders.
On Wednesday, following Obama’s statement, American Legion National Commander Daniel Dellinger called the president’s decision to keep Shinseki “unfortunate.”
“Secretary Shinseki has taken no initiative in correcting the problem. Veterans continue to die waiting for their health care, senior VA executives continue to get their bonuses, and only after all of this is the secretary now pledging to fix what’s wrong,” Dellinger said.
Last Friday, Shinseki requested the resignation of Undersecretary for Health Affairs Dr. Robert Petzel, but his departure largely was seen by many as a hollow gesture given he was scheduled to retire this summer.
Obama said the results of Nabors review are due within a month. Nabors is traveling to Phoenix today. A full VA inspector general’s report into the charges of scheduling fraud in Phoenix are not expected until August.