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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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?"