President Barack Obama said Wednesday that “if there was misconduct, it will be punished” in the Department of Veterans Affairs debacle of long wait times for veterans seeking 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, not as commander in chief, but also not as an American, none of us should,” Obama said. “So, if these allegations prove to be true, it is dishonorable, it is disgraceful, and I will not tolerate it — period. Here’s what I discussed with secretary Shinseki this morning. First, anybody found to have manipulated or falsified records at VA facilities has to be held accountable.”
Obama stressed several times in his prepared remarks, however, that the investigation must occur so that everyone has the facts before disciplinary action can be taken.
Allegations first surfaced this month that the Phoenix VA hospital falsified wait times to make it appear as if veterans did not have to wait as long to see a doctor as they really did. Because of the long VA wait lists, some reports show that up to 40 veterans might have died waiting for care. The VA Office of Inspector General is investigating. Meanwhile, White House Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors is also doing a separate review of the matter.
Obama responded to a question about the 40 who died, saying they may not have died because of wait times.
“Generally what the IG inindicated so far at least is the wait times were for folks who may have had chronic conditions, were seeking their next appointment, but may have already received service,” Obama said. “It was not necessarily a situation where they were calling for emergency services. And the IG indicated that he did not see a link between the wait and them actually dying. That does not excuse the fact that the wait times in general are too long in some facilities.”
A spokesperson for the IG’s office told the Associated Press that 26 VA medical facilities are being investigated.
Obama spoke about the matter for about 20 minutes from White House press briefing room, his first extended comments on the matter that has sparked outrage from both parties.
The president also urged caution pending the outcome of the investigation.
“I don’t yet know how systemic this is,” Obama said. “I don’t yet know are there a lot of other facilities that have been cooked in the books or is this just an episodic problem? We know that essentially wait times have been a problem for decades in all kinds of circumstances. With respect to the veterans getting benefits, getting health care, etc., some facilities do better than others.”
Nabors is set to travel to the Phoenix VA medical facility Wednesday and visit with veterans groups there such as Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion.
Obama defended Shinseki as a good soldier and public servant in his Wednesday remarks.
“He himself is a disabled veteran and nobody cares more about our veterans than Ric Shinseki,” Obama said. “I said to Ric and said it to him today, I want to see what the results of these reports are, and there is going to be accountability.”
He said the secretary will produce preliminary results of his review next week.
Several veterans groups have called for Shinseki to resign. Last week, Dr. Robert Patzel, who announced his pending retirement last fall, resigned. The Obama administration immediately took credit for taking swift action to force his resignation.
Since the Phoenix allegations, more reports emerged that veterans had to wait extremely long time or were denied care at VA medical facilities in Colorado, Texas, North Carolina, Wyoming, South Carolina, New Mexico, Missouri, Florida and West Virginia.
Obama had been heavily criticized for not addressing the matter more directly earlier, only responding when asked about it at a news conference during his Asian trip.
The VA goal is to see veterans within 14 days of desired appointment dates. That goal is used as a performance measure for individual VA medical facilities and affects administrator bonuses.
A VA memo from 2010 explained a problem with severe wait times, while Obama reportedly had warning from the outgoing Bush administration of VA problems. Moreover, as a candidate for president, Obama campaign on making the VA more effective.