Barack Obama

President Obama Angry About VA Scandal, Deputy Undersecretary Resigns, Business As Usual

More anger than accountability


This Sunday on Face the Nation, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough told CBS's Major Garrett that President Obama was "madder than hell" about the recent scandal at the Department of Veterans' Affairs (VA).

The comments followed a hearing at the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee last Thursday where VA Secretary Eric Shinseki faced questions about long waits at VA medical facilities and the cover-up surrounding those long waits. Shinseki, too, told the committee he was "mad as hell" about the problem, but he said he would remain in office as long as he had the president's support. This weekend, after the McDonough interview was taped but before it aired, Robert Petzel, an undersecretary for health at the VA, resigned.

Writing for, Concerned Veterans for America's Pete Hegseth took issue with Shinseki describing the VA's healthcare system as a "good system," calling it the "second biggest lie of the year":

The totality of the Secretary's remarks before the committee Thursday were not only deceptive, they were detached, defensive, and unbefitting a leader who, by now, should be fighting mad about the scandals engulfing VA, firing those responsible, and fundamentally challenging every assumption he has about the manner in which care is provided to our veterans.  

Instead, Shinseki played the role of aloof bureaucrat, reading dispassionately from his prepared remarks in a monotone voice, as if this was a run-of-the-mill budget hearing. Shinseki's comments were spot on in that respect—a perfect personification of VA's indifferent and unaccountable bureaucracy. The VA's recent round of troubles began last month with allegations that as many as 40 patients may have died while on (secret) waiting lists at a veterans hospital in Phoenix, allegations that led to three executives being placed on indefinite leave. Since then, six more VA hospitals were accused of similar mismanagement  problems, the most recent being the veterans hospital in Albuquerque, where The Daily Beast reported that a whistleblower accused officials at the hospital of destroying records to hide their malfeasance.

However, although the latest allegations began in the last month, the Obama Administration may have been warned about the problem as early as during the 2008 transition, when VA officials told the Obama team not to trust wait times reported by VA hospitals. "This is not only a data integrity issue in which [Veterans Health Administration] reports unreliable performance data; it affects quality of care by delaying—and potentially denying—deserving veterans timely care," the officials wrote in a memo obtained by the Times.

Concerned Veterans for America, meanwhile, has been warning about the ineffective VA healthcare system and what it meant for attempts at creating a broader federal healthcare system well before this latest news.

The Washington Post's Dana Milibank, among others, has called for Shinseki's resignation, in part because of the VA secretary's "maddeningly passive response" at last week's hearings. Shinseki's apparent job security despite the scandal is not new for this administration, but it may not last forever either. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, for example, eventually resigned over the botched Obamacare rollout, but it wasn't until months after the disaster had unfolded. The recent revelations about mismanagement at veterans hospitals contradict President Obama's claim that care for veterans was a top priority in his first and second term in office, and even a hypothetical resignation by Secretary Shinseki may not be enough to paper over that contradiction.