(CNN) – He promised accountability, but he’s not firing Veteran Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki – yet.
President Barack Obama sought to tamp down increasing calls for immediate action on a growing controversy involving fraudulent record-keeping that covered up excessive and sometimes deadly waiting times for veterans at some VA facilities.
After meeting with Shinseki on Wednesday, Obama held a hastily arranged news conference in which he said he needed more time to review what was going on and declared that any proven misconduct will face punishment.
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“If these allegations prove to be true, it is dishonorable, it is disgraceful, and I will not tolerate it, period,” the President said in his first public comments in weeks on the issue first reported by CNN last month.
The VA problems touch on an emotional topic — caring for America’s military veterans, many of whom served in war — and the revelations of scheduling tricks and secret lists to hide months-long waits for care prompted calls criticism of Shinseki and the VA on both sides of the aisle.
“My attitude is, for folks who have been fighting on the battlefield, they should not have to fight a bureaucracy at home to get the care that they’ve earned,” Obama said.
Asked if Shinseki offered to resign, he said the retired Army general “cares deeply about veterans and he cares deeply about the mission, and I know that Rick’s attitude is if he doesn’t think he can do a good job on this and if he thinks he’s let our veterans down, then I’m sure that he is not going to be interested in continuing to serve.”
His remarks did little to soothe critics, with House Republican leader Eric Cantor of Virginia quickly asserting that the President “is known for talking about accountability without ever holding anyone accountable.”
Rep. John Barrow of Georgia became the first congressional Democrat to publicly call for Shinseki’s dismissal. He released a statement after Obama’s remarks that said: “While I don’t think a change in leadership will immediately solve the serious problems that plague the VA, I do think it’s time to give someone else an opportunity to lead the agency and begin the rebuilding process to ensure these issues never happen again.”
Calls for Shinseki’s dismissal
The American Legion, a major veterans’ group that has called for Shinseki’s ouster, labeled Obama’s decision to keep him in office “unfortunate.”
“Words are nice, and even somewhat comforting, but when will the VA’s house be cleansed of those who are soiling it and dishonoring the system?” said Daniel Dellinger, the legion’s national commander.
Obama noted that the public wants a “swift reckoning” on the VA issue, but he defended the record of his administration and Shinseki — a retired Army general who has been the only Veteran Affairs secretary of his presidency.
Shinseki is committed to solving the department’s problems, Obama said, adding it has been made clear to him that there will be accountability throughout the VA system.
CNN reported last month that in Phoenix, the department used fraudulent record-keeping — including secret lists — that covered up excessive waiting periods for veterans, with some dying in the process.
White House spokesman Jay Carney stepped around questions Tuesday about when Obama learned of the depth of the Department of Veterans Affairs problems.
In a new development, CNN has learned that the Phoenix VA Director Sharon Helman — who was placed on administrative leave because of the reported problems — received a bonus of $8,495 in April, which was in addition to the 2013 bonus she received, according to the House Committee on Veteran’s Affairs, which was notified on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, the number of VA facilities under investigation has expanded to 26, the agency’s Office of Inspector General said Tuesday. Last week, the inspector general told a Senate committee that 10 facilities were being investigated.
Obama’s deputy chief of staff, Rob Nabors, will head to Phoenix on Wednesday night to interview the VA office’s interim director and visit the facility. Nabors is aiding Shinseki with a review of the allegations, and Obama said he expects a preliminary report from them next week.
In addition, Nabors is conducting a broader review of overall VA health care administration, with a deadline to report back to Obama in a month, the President said.
For six months, CNN has been reporting on delays in medical appointments for veterans across the country, with some dying or suffering harm while waiting for appointments and care.
The most disturbing and striking problems emerged in Arizona last month, with sources revealing to CNN details of a secret waiting list. According to the sources, at least 40 American veterans died in Phoenix while waiting for care at the VA there.
An internal VA memo from 2010, first disclosed at a congressional hearing last week, showed officials warned of “inappropriate scheduling practices” to cover up excessive waits for veterans four years ago.
Problem cited in 2010
The memo by William Schoenhard, who was a VA deputy undersecretary, referred to a growing practice of “gaming strategies” that he said would not be tolerated. However, the CNN investigation shows such practices have continued.
One of CNN’s sources, Dr. Samuel Foote, a retired VA hospital physician, said Wednesday that VA managers worried about being able to report they were meeting deadlines for providing care to veterans, rather than getting accurate information on what was happening.
If the numbers provided to superiors looked good, then the VA looked good, Foote explained, adding, “There’s really no incentive for the upper management to get accurate numbers.”
He said, “I think the VA needs to get out of its delay and deny mode and start admitting that there really is a problem, and that’s generally the first step in solving a problem is admitting you have one.”
The VA has acknowledged 23 deaths nationwide due to excessive waits by veterans for care, and the VA inspector general launched an independent investigation of the Phoenix allegations and other VA problems in addition to the internal review by Shinseki and Nabors.
At a Senate hearing last week, the inspector general said his investigation so far found a possible 17 deaths of veterans waiting for care in Phoenix but added there was no evidence that the excessive waiting caused those deaths.
Obama sought to provide a more detailed description of the allegations on Wednesday, saying the cooked books and excessive waits applied more to veterans with chronic conditions who are among the 85 million VA appointments each year instead of those needing emergency care.
At the same time, he questioned if a 14-day deadline for the VA to provide service to newly registered veterans — a policy implemented under Shinseki — was unrealistic.
Among the questions to be answered, Obama said, was whether VA managers provided enough resources to carry out directives.
“What is not yet clear to me is whether enough tools were given to make sure those goals were actually met,” he said. “I won’t know until the full report is put forward as to whether there was enough management follow up.”
On Monday, White House spokesman Jay Carney acknowledged the White House learned of the situation at the Phoenix VA from CNN reports in April.
Asked Tuesday about the 2010 memo by Schoenhard, Carney refused to answer and instead referred reporters to the VA because it was an internal agency document.
Obama argued Wednesday that problems at the VA date back decades, saying his administration has made improvements, including budget increases, expanded services and reducing a backlog of benefit claims.
“There’s not a problem out there that’s not fixable,” he said. “It can’t always be fixed as quickly as everybody would like. but typically we can chip away at these problems. We’ve seen this with the backlog, we’ve seen it with veterans’ homelessness, we’ve seen it with the post-9/11 GI Bill.”
In 2007, Obama, then a senator from Illinois, vowed to tackle the issue of insufficient care for veterans at a campaign event during his first run for the presidency.
“When a veteran is denied care, we are all dishonored,” Obama said in the August 2007 speech, adding: “It’s not enough to lay a wreath on Memorial Day, or to pay tribute to our veterans in speeches.”
Whistleblowers from other VA hospitals have stepped forward to describe similar schemes by officials to hide the extended waits.
Meanwhile, an audit team sent to the Malcom Randall VA Medical Center in Gainesville, Florida, discovered a list of patients needing follow-up appointments that was kept on paper instead of in the VA’s electronic computer system.
As a result, three members of the Gainesville VA’s supervisory staff have been placed on paid leave, pending the outcome of the inspector general’s investigation, VA Sunshine Healthcare Network spokeswoman Mary Kay Hollingsworth said this week.
The secret waiting list in Phoenix was part of an elaborate scheme designed by VA managers there who were trying to hide that 1,400 to 1,600 sick veterans were forced to wait months to see a doctor, according to a recently retired top VA doctor and several high-level sources.
Phoenix VA officials denied any knowledge of a secret list, and said they never ordered any staff to hide waiting times.
They acknowledged some veterans may have died waiting for care there, but they said they did not have knowledge about why those veterans might have died.
CNN has tried repeatedly to interview Shinseki, but the requests have been denied.