Last weekend, President Barack Obama's chief of staff went on Sunday shows to say that the president was "madder than hell" at reports that veterans were dying due to long waits for health care from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and that the agency was covering up these problems.
Today, the president himself came forward to express his outrage that the agency he promised to fix years ago when he was first brought into office doesn't seem to have been fixed at all. Here's a piece of his speech:
Here's what I discussed with Secretary [Eric] Shinseki this morning. First, anybody found to have manipulated or falsified records at VA facilities has to be held accountable. The inspector general at the VA has launched investigations into the Phoenix VA and other facilities. And some individuals have already been put on administrative leave. I know that people are angry and want a swift reckoning. I sympathize with that. But we have to let the investigators do their job and get to the bottom of what happened. Our veterans deserve to know the facts. Their families deserve to know the facts. And once we know the facts, I assure you—if there is misconduct, it will be punished.
Second, I want to know the full scope of this problem. And that's why I ordered Secretary Shinseki to investigate. Today, he updated me on his review, which is looking not just at the Phoenix facility, but also VA facilities across the nation. And I expect preliminary results from that review next week.
Third, I've directed Rob Nabors to conduct a broader review of the Veterans Health Administration—the part of the VA that delivers health care to our veterans. And Rob is going to Phoenix today. Keep in mind, though, even if we had not heard reports out of this Phoenix facility or other facilities, we all know that it often takes too long for veterans to get the care that they need. That's not a new development. It's been a problem for decades and it's been compounded by more than a decade of war.
Here is the president's 20-minute speech for those who wish to watch. He took two whole questions:
Who knew what when?
The Washington Post got its hands on a memo showing that VA management knew as far back as 2010 that hospitals were hiding treatment delays and canceling appointments in order to make it appear they were meeting the department's goal of seeing patients within 30 days of requests for treatment. This memo backs up testimony before a Senate committee from Robert Petzel, the VA undersecretary who resigned last week as the scandal exploded.
Nevertheless, the president is standing behind Shinseki so far and refusing calls to fire the VA secretary. The Hill notes that Democrats are joining Republicans in unhappiness in the way the president is handling the scandal:
Rep. John Barrow (Ga.) called on embattled Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign, making him the first Democrat in Congress to do so. He was quickly joined by Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.), who said he was "very disappointed" with President Obama's handling of the situation.
"Unfortunately, this administration has fallen short in providing the kind of care that our veterans have earned. While I don't think a change in leadership will immediately solve the serious problems that plague the VA, I do think it's time to give someone else an opportunity to lead the agency and begin the rebuilding process to ensure these issues never happen again," Barrow said in a statement. "Secretary Shinseki deserves the utmost respect for his service, but it's time for someone new to get to the bottom of what's happened on his watch."
"The first person we need to fire is the secretary of Veterans Affairs," Scott said Wednesday on the House floor. "We respect him, we respect his sacrifice for his country and everything else, but the buck stops at the top."
Scott also criticized the president for not demonstrating a sense of urgency in trying to fix these problems.