Growing allegations of mismanagement at veterans hospitals across the country are threatening to engulf President Obama in another scandal that brings into question his ability to make government work.
As a candidate, Obama denounced delays and poor care for veterans at hospitals run by the Department of Veterans Affairs and vowed that his administration would fix the backlogs and dramatically improve care for those returning from the battlefield.
In a speech in 2008, Obama pledged to build “a 21st-century VA” and promised to confront what he called “the broken bureaucracy of the VA — the impossibly long lines, or the repeated calls for help that get you nothing more than an answering machine.”
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But 5½ years into his presidency, Obama has once again found himself exposed to political danger by a bureaucracy that seems out of his immediate control.
The president is now facing fresh allegations that officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs manipulated wait times to hide the long delays many patients faced to see physicians. Aides said he learned of the specific allegations in news reports.
Obama’s apparent lack of awareness about the current problems at the department has drawn the expected scorn from across the political spectrum and will probably increase this week as lawmakers return to Capitol Hill.
The president is also dispatching Denis McDonough, his chief of staff, to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to consult with the chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt.
Lawmakers are working on bipartisan legislation that would give veterans officials greater authority to fire those responsible at the Department of Veterans Affairs. The House is expected to vote Wednesday on a bill and the Senate is expected to hold hearings on the legislation soon.
In responding to the allegations of delays at veterans hospitals, the Obama White House has embraced what has become a familiar public-relations pattern in dealing with political crises: Administration officials have declared their outrage as they urge patience while an investigation by the department’s inspector general is completed.
“We believe that the right thing to do is to fully investigate, fully review, take action to fix the problems that are identified, and make sure that the services are being provided to our veterans,” Jay Carney, the president’s press secretary, said Monday.
Carney also noted that Obama has successfully fought to increase the budget for the Veterans Affairs department and to broaden access to disability claims for veterans.
The White House has also borrowed a page from its response to the debacle of the rollout of HealthCare.gov, when Obama sent a top management official to help repair the website. Last week, Obama ordered his deputy chief of staff, Rob Nabors, to review the allegations at the veterans hospitals.
Nabors, who met Tuesday in Washington with representatives of several veterans organizations, including the American Legion and Disabled American Veterans, among others, will meet Thursday with leadership at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Medical Center, including with interim director Steve Young, Carney said.
Young took over in Phoenix after director Sharon Helman was placed on leave indefinitely while the Office of Inspector General investigates claims raised by several former VA employees that Phoenix administrators kept a secret list of patients waiting for appointments to hide delays in care. Critics say Helman was motivated to conceal delays to collect a bonus of about $9,000 last year.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said in a statement Tuesday: “It’s extremely disappointing that the department has repeatedly failed to address the problem. … We have come to the point where we need more than good intentions — what we need from leadership at the Department of Veterans Affairs now is decisive action to restore veterans’ confidence in VA, and to change these systemwide, yearslong problems.”
The allegations have sparked a firestorm on Capitol Hill and some calls for Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki’s resignation. The VA’s undersecretary for health care, Robert Petzel, has since stepped down. However, Republicans denounced the move as a hollow gesture, since Petzel had already been scheduled to retire soon.
So far, White House officials have waved aside calls for Shinseki to resign in much the same way they rejected calls for the resignation of Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, in the months before she finally announced that she would step down after the botched health-care rollout. Carney said Monday that the president still “has confidence” in Shinseki.
Republican Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas, a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said on Tuesday he plans to introduce legislation this week to ensure that internal probes by the VA’s Office of Medical Inspector are released to Congress and the public “so the full scope of the VA’s dysfunction cannot be disguised.”
White House officials are sure to denounce such attacks as political opportunism aimed at this fall’s elections, much the same way they have criticized the Republican focus on wrongdoing at the IRS and unanswered questions about the 2012 attack at a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya.
But it may be more difficult for the administration to accuse Republicans of conducting a partisan witch hunt in the case of the veterans hospitals because some of the critics are not Republicans. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said at a hearing last week that the FBI should be called in to investigate.
“Isn’t there evidence here of criminal wrongdoing, that is falsifying records, false statements to the federal government? That’s a crime,” Blumenthal told Shinseki.
Several Democratic members said they feared that Republicans may be laying the groundwork for a push to privatize veterans’ health care and dismantle one of the largest bastions of government health care in the United States.
Sanders, the Senate veterans-panel chairman, said he was willing to work with Republicans to improve health care in the system, but he warned against using the allegations as a political weapon.
“I am going to do everything I can to prevent VA health care from being politicized,” Sanders said.
He added: “We are talking about the lives of 6½ million men and women who have put their lives on the line to defend this country, who deserve to be treated with respect, not be made into a political football.”
Includes material from The Associated Press and Seattle Times staff.