President Obama spoke from the White House this morning, delivering his first extended remarks
on the controversy surrounding the Department of Veterans Affairs, and vowing accountability for those accused of wrongdoing.
"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," President Obama said, following a meeting with VA Secretary Eric Shinseki in the Oval Office Wednesday morning. "If these allegations prove to be true, it is dishonorable, it is disgraceful, and I will not tolerate it. Period," Obama said. The department is under fire over claims that VA hospitals in Phoenix, Ariz., used secret waiting lists to hide wait times for primary care that exceeded the maximum 14-day period promised by the agency.
Looking ahead, the VA's inspector general will continue to investigate how, whether, and to what extent various facilities -- not just the Phoenix hospital -- cooked the books. In the meantime, Shinseki will provide a preliminary review to the president next week.
What's more, the president has dispatched White House Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors to help oversee "a broader review of the Veterans Health Administration, the part of the VA that delivers health care to our veterans." To that end, Nabors leaves for Phoenix today.
Stepping back, though, and looking at the nature of the outrage, what we seem to be looking at is two stories, not one.
The first deals with the recent revelations about VA facilities manipulating records. This is a pretty straightforward controversy -- either officials engaged in misconduct or they didn't. We'll know the results of the investigation soon enough.
The second is a different kind of controversy. We're accustomed to thinking about scandals in government as incidents -- did Nixon order the Watergate break in? Did Reagan sell weapons to Iran to finance an illegal war in Central America? Did Clinton have sexual relations with that woman? Did Bush lie a nation into a war?
The VA scandal is altogether different. As Obama explained this morning:
"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. That's why when I came into office, I said we would systematically work to fix these problems, and we have been working really hard to address them."
I'm glad the political world is starting to talk about the "VA scandal," because it's serious and in need of public attention. But to think that the underlying controversy started with VA hospitals in Phoenix is to miss the larger point.
Veterans have struggled in dramatic ways in recent years to receive the care they deserve. This may not fit nicely into the usual "scandal" box -- it's bipartisan; it spans multiple administration; and it's unfolded slowly over the course of many years -- but when American men and women wear the uniform and face a seemingly endless benefits backlog, it should be called what it is.
Yes, the problem has slowly gotten better
, and the progress is heartening. Yes, the problem isn't limited to one administration, so there's no point in trying to turn this into a partisan political football.
But so long as veterans aren't receiving the care they need in a timely manner, it's a problem that shouldn't have to wait for a solution.