WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama denounced alleged misconduct at the Department of Veterans Affairs as “disgraceful” Wednesday and vowed to punish those responsible.
But the president’s first public remarks on the VA controversy in three weeks failed to quell growing fury among veterans groups and lawmakers, who demanded that Obama clean house at the troubled agency_starting at the top with VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.
The president’s long-awaited remarks were “a tremendous disappointment” and gave veterans no reason to hope for change at the VA, said Paul Rieckhoff, the head of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a nonprofit based in Washington.
“The public trust with the VA and Secretary Shinseki is broken,” Rieckhoff said in a statement.
“Speeches and excuses will not solve this problem,” he said. “Only decisive leadership, bold change and strong accountability will repair decades of failure.”
Daniel M. Dellinger, the national commander of the American Legion, said the president’s decision not to fire Shinseki was “an unfortunate one.”
“The VA has been aware for some time that inappropriate scheduling procedures are widespread among its medical facilities,” he said in a statement. “Yet 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.”
Words are nice, Dellinger said, but the VA needs to “be cleansed of those who are soiling it and dishonoring the system.”
Obama warned that anyone found to have falsified records in order to cover up long wait times for appointments at VA hospitals will be held accountable.
“I will not stand for it, not as commander in chief but also not as an American. None of us should,” the president said after meeting with Shinseki at the White House. “So if these allegations prove to be true it is dishonorable, it is disgraceful and I will not tolerate it, period.”
Obama said he still trusted Shinseki, and added that responsibility ultimately rests with him as commander in chief.
“Nobody cares more about our veterans,” Obama said of Shinseki. “He has put his heart and soul into this thing and has taken it very seriously. . . . He has been a great public servant and a great warrior on behalf of the United States of America. We are going to work with him to solve the problem.”
Asked by reporters whether Shinseki had offered to resign, Obama hinted that the secretary might do so if progress isn’t made quickly.
“I know that (Shinseki’s) attitude is if he does not think he can do a good job on this and if he thinks he has let our veterans down, then I’m sure that he is not going to be interested in continuing to serve,” the president said.
“At this stage, Ric is committed to solving the problem and working with us to do it. And I am going to do everything in my power, using the resources of the White House, to help that process of getting to the bottom of what happened and fixing it.”
Obama met with Shinseki and Rob Nabors, the president’s deputy chief of staff, in the Oval Office on Wednesday morning. Obama has asked Nabors to help Shinseki review VA policies nationwide.
The president’s chief of staff, Denis R. McDonough, went to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to meet with the chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Bernard Sanders, an independent senator from Vermont.
The House of Representatives later Wednesday approved with bipartisan support a proposal that would make it easier to fire employees at the VA. A similar proposal in the Senate, authored by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., remains in committee.
Obama said he was awaiting preliminary findings from Shinseki next week and a more comprehensive report from Nabors next month before taking any punitive action.
“I know people are angry and want swift reckoning,” he added. “I sympathize with that but we have to let the investigators do their job and get to the bottom of what happened.”
With midterm elections looming in November, the VA problems could become a major political liability for Obama and the Democrats.
The crisis threatens to overshadow high-profile initiatives by the White House to reduce veteran unemployment, support military families, reduce veteran homelessness and eliminate the VA’s record backlog of disability claims.
Republicans continued to hammer the administration Wednesday for its handling of the controversy.
“For weeks, President Barack Obama has been hiding behind talking points and an investigation being led by a political insider, but there are more questions that remain unanswered, which is why we need an independent investigation into this troubling matter,” said Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee.
Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., a member of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee and the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, complained that it had taken a month for Obama to publicly respond to the VA scandal.
“Every day that we have waited for President Obama and Secretary Shinseki to show leadership, new complaints and concerns poured in from whistle-blowers, veterans and veteran family members across the country,” he said. “These reports are symptoms of the systemic dysfunction within the VA system that has been developing for years – yet the White House says they only just learned about them on television.”
Obama acknowledged that it often takes too long for veterans to get the care that they need, but he said that wasn’t a new development.
“It’ s been true for decades and it’s been compounded by a decade of war,” he said.
Improving services for veterans has been a cause of his presidency, he said. “We’ve been working really hard” to fix the problem, he said.
The VA inspector general’s office is investigating reports that 40 veterans on a secret wait list died while waiting for care at a VA hospital in Phoenix.
The investigation recently expanded to determine whether VA officials also had manipulated wait times in an effort to hide how long it takes veterans to receive treatment at 26 other facilities across the country.