A visibly angered President Obama stood before the American public Wednesday and said he would not tolerate any scandal within the Department of Veterans Affairs, adding that if the allegations were proven true, those involved would be punished for "cooking the books."
Obama offered a tepid support of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, though he rejected calls for his resignation amid allegations that dozens of veterans died while waiting for primary health care. The president made clear the White House would not stand by and wait for the results of the VA internal investigation into the matter, and he tasked his deputy chief of staff to travel to Phoenix, Ariz., where VA hospitals are being scrutinized.
“When I hear any 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, following a meeting with Shinseki in the Oval Office Wednesday morning.
Obama faced enormous pressure to swiftly address the scandal after he ran on veterans issues in his 2008 campaign and the first lady has made veterans outreach a cornerstone of her legacy.
The department is under fire over claims that VA hospitals in Phoenix used secret lists to hide wait times for primary care that exceeded the maximum 14-day period promised by the agency. Three officials were placed on administrative leave after whistleblowers charged that the delay in care could be linked to as many as 40 veteran deaths. The VA Inspector General tasked with investigating the controversy expanded his investigation to cover 26 facilities across the country.
“If these allegations prove to be true, it is dishonorable, it is disgraceful, and I will not tolerate it. Period,” Obama said.
Congressional pressure continues to mount on the administration while veterans groups are up in arms, demanding that Shinseki resign over the controversy. Republican lawmakers on Wednesday criticized Obama for not immediately speaking out.
"Every day that we have waited for President Obama and Secretary Shinseki to show leadership, new complaints and concerns poured in from whistleblowers, veterans and veteran family members across the country," Kentucky Sen. Jerry Moran, a member of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, said in a statement.
"His remarks are wholly insufficient in addressing the fundamental, systemic problems plaguing our veterans' health care system," Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain said Wednesday.
Rob Nabors, White House deputy chief of staff, is scheduled to travel Wednesday evening to Phoenix. A day earlier, he continued to play damage control with veterans group leaders after the American Legion, the largest in the country, led the charge in calls for Shinseki’s resignation.
“We all share the same sense of urgency to fix what’s broken, to hold folks accountable where needed, and to maintain the faith veterans have in their VA,” a spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars said in a statement of the meeting.
The House is slated to vote on the VA Accountability Act Wednesday, which would grant the VA chief the authority to fire career public servants in the department who can be linked to the delays in providing health care.
Shinseki appeared before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee last week, saying he was “mad as hell” over the controversy. One day later, Under Secretary for Health Robert Petzel became the first top official to step down since revelations of a potential scandal came to light.
Other allegations of delays in health care are sprouting up across Colorado, South Carolina, Georgia, and Texas. Last month, the department also revealed that as many as 23 veteran deaths were linked to delayed cancer screenings over the past several years.
“The frustration is with bureaucracy,” Retired Ge. Stanley McChrystal said on Morning Joe Wednesday. “That’s what we should be focusing on, that’s what we should try to help people with, because that’s pretty daunting for someone who needs help.”