(Updates with Senate comment in paragraphs six and seven.)
May 21 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. President Barack Obama vowed to punish any officials responsible for covering up delays at Veterans Affairs facilities while saying that VA Secretary Eric Shinseki will stay on the job for now.
Obama said he’s awaiting a report from the VA inspector general on whether some of the agency’s facilities, in an effort to cover up failures to meet standards, kept secret waiting lists for veterans seeking care. Some veterans may have died while on the wait lists.
“If these allegations prove to be true, it is dishonorable, it is disgraceful and I will not tolerate it, period,” Obama said at the White House after a meeting with Shinseki and Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors, who was dispatched to Phoenix to oversee a review of the system there.
With his remarks, the president is now taking a personal role as he faces a political backlash from lawmakers of both parties over reports that hospitals may have altered records to hide treatment delays.
Although the White House has maintained support for Shinseki, others have called for his resignation, including the American Legion and Republican Senators Richard Burr of North Carolina, John Cornyn of Texas and Jerry Moran of Kansas.
Burr, the top Republican on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said Obama’s timeline is too slow and that he shouldn’t wait for the department’s inspector general to finish the VA review.
Conditions at the VA are a “national embarrassment,” as is Obama’s response, said Senator John Thune, a South Dakota Republican. “Tough words just aren’t enough when it comes to this issue. We need action.”
Obama said Shinseki “has put his heart and soul into this thing and he has taken it very seriously.”
“But I have said to Ric and I said it to him today, I want to see, you know, what the results of these reports are, and there is going to be accountability,” Obama said.
Obama assigned Nabors to work with Shinseki and conduct a review of the Veterans Health Administration, the unit of the VA responsible for health care. The report is due next month.
An Army veteran himself, Shinseki, 71, is a native of Hawaii, where Obama grew up. He was awarded a Purple Heart and Bronze Star for his military service in Vietnam. A four-star general, Shinseki promised during his 2009 confirmation hearing to “transform” the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona called Obama’s remarks “wholly insufficient in addressing the fundamental, systemic problems plaguing our veterans’ health-care system.”
“This administration’s ineffectual response has created a crisis of confidence in our veterans community,” McCain, a former Navy pilot who was a prisoner of war during the Vietnam conflict, said in a statement. McCain ran for president in 2008 against Obama.
Paul Rieckhoff, chief executive officer and founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said Obama is “dithering” in his attempt to fix problems plaguing the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“Our membership is tremendously disappointed,” Rieckhoff said in an interview taped today for “Political Capital with Al Hunt,” airing on Bloomberg Television this weekend. “There’s no real action. There’s no real plan.”
Obama said the trouble at the VA has been festering for decades and the system has had to deal with an influx of veterans of the conflict in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan.
The president, who sat on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee as a senator, said he’d welcome the bipartisan help of Congress to fix problems at the beleaguered agency.
“It is important that our veterans don’t become another political football, especially when so many of them are receiving care right now,” he said.
For now, Obama said the thing that’s most disturbing is “the possibility that folks intentionally withheld information that would’ve helped us fix a problem.”
CNN, citing a retired VA doctor and other unidentified people, reported in April that managers at a VA center in Phoenix covered up long wait times for care and that as many as 40 veterans died while on the list. Obama said at the time that he ordered Shinseki to investigate and that there was a probe being conducted by the VA’s inspector general.
The Office of Inspector General is investigating more than two dozen VA facilities. Obama said he directed Nabors to deliver recommendations by next month.
In the 2008 election, Obama sought support from veterans and criticized the VA’s administration. PolitiFact, a website that tracks campaign promises, documented 14 veterans-related campaign promises, which included reducing the backlog of medical care.
“A proud and grateful nation owes more than ceremonial gestures and kind words,” Obama said in remarks to the VFW national convention in August 2007. “Caring for those who serve and for their families is a fundamental responsibility of the commander-in-chief.”
While more people have been hired since then, there’s also been an increase in medical claims with the end of the war in Iraq and the winding down of the war in Afghanistan, the longest conflict in U.S. history.
--With assistance from David Lerman, Greg Giroux and Kathleen Hunter in Washington.