WASHINGTON – With outrage mounting over veterans' health care, President Barack Obama declared Wednesday that allegations of misconduct at Veterans Affairs hospitals will not be tolerated, and he left open the possibility that VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, a disabled war veteran, could be held to account.
“I will not stand for it – not as commander in chief, but also not as an American,” Obama said after an Oval Office meeting with Shinseki.
Congress moved to keep up the pressure on the administration, with the House easily approving a measure Wednesday evening that would give the VA secretary more authority to fire or demote the 450 senior career employees who serve as hospital directors or executives in the agency's 21 regions. The vote was 390 to 33.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, sponsored the measure, saying VA officials who have presided over mismanagement or negligence are more likely to receive bonuses or glowing performance reviews than any sort of punishment. He declared that a “widespread and systemic lack of accountability is exacerbating” the department's problems.
The White House said it supported the goal of seeking greater accountability at the VA but had unspecified concerns about the legislation.
The growing furor surrounding the Department of Veterans Affairs centers on allegations of treatment delays and preventable deaths at VA hospitals.
The department's inspector general's office says 26 facilities are being investigated nationwide, including a Phoenix hospital facing allegations that 40 people died while waiting for treatment and that staff kept a secret list of patients in order to hide delays in care.
The allegations have raised fresh concerns about the Obama administration's management of a department that has struggled to keep up with the influx of new veterans returning home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Obama's comments Wednesday – his first on the matter in more than three weeks – signaled a greater urgency by the White House to keep the matter from spiraling into a deeper political problem in a midterm election year.
“We are going to fix whatever is wrong, and so long as I have the privilege of serving as commander in chief, I'm going to keep on fighting to deliver the care and the benefits and the opportunities that you and your families deserve, now and for decades to come,” Obama said.
Yet the president's remarks did little to quell the criticism of VA troubles and his own handling of the matter.
Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, a former prisoner of war, said Obama's comments were “wholly insufficient in addressing the fundamental, systemic problems plaguing our veterans' health care system.”
The American Legion, the nation's largest veterans service organization, said Obama was making an “unfortunate” decision by keeping Shinseki at the helm of the VA.
“Words are nice, and even somewhat comforting,” said Daniel Dellinger, the American Legion's national commander. “But when will the VA's house be cleansed of those who are soiling it and dishonoring the system?”