Florida Republicans are demanding major changes at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, far beyond what President Barack Obama proposed on Wednesday.
Obama met with VA Secretary Eric Shinseki on Wednesday and vowed to punish department officials if they altered data on wait lists for VA medical centers. White House Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors, who Obama has assigned to help the VA clean up the mess, was also at the meeting before heading to Phoenix later in the day. Reports have emerged in recent weeks with a VA medical center in Phoenix altering wait lists and 40 veterans died waiting for care.
We focused on two issues: the allegations of misconduct at Veterans Affairs facilities, and our broader mission of caring for our veterans and their families, Obama told the media after the meeting on Wednesday. When I hear allegations of misconduct -- any misconduct -- whether its allegations of VA staff covering up long wait times or cooking the books, I will not stand for it. Not as commander in chief, but also not as an American. None of us should. So if these allegations prove to be true, it is dishonorable, it is disgraceful, and I will not tolerate it -- period.
Heres what I discussed with Sec. Shinseki this morning, Obama continued. First, anybody found to have manipulated or falsified records at VA facilities has to be held accountable. The inspector general at the VA has launched investigations into the Phoenix VA and other facilities. And some individuals have already been put on administrative leave. I know that people are angry and want a swift reckoning. I sympathize with that. But we have to let the investigators do their job and get to the bottom of what happened. Our veterans deserve to know the facts. Their families deserve to know the facts. And once we know the facts, I assure you -- if there is misconduct, it will be punished.
Obama also said he ordered Sec. Shinseki to investigate VA facilities across the nation. I expect preliminary results from that review next week, Obama said.
Ive directed Rob Nabors to conduct a broader review of the Veterans Health Administration -- the part of the VA that delivers health care to our veterans, Obama added. And Rob is going to Phoenix today. 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. Thats not a new development. Its been a problem for decades and its been compounded by more than a decade of war.
But thats not enough for some Florida Republicans. U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., the chairman of the U.S. House Veterans Affairs Committee, said more needs to be done.
I couldnt have been more disappointed with President Obamas remarks, Miller said on Wednesday. VA is in the middle of the biggest health-care scandal in its history. At least 26 VA facilities are under investigation, and by the departments own count at least 23 veterans are dead due to recent delays in VA care. Immediate action is required, but the president is urging patience. As allegations of secret wait lists and manipulation of appointment wait times continue to surface at VA medical centers across the country, we simply can't afford to wait for the results of another IG investigation or VA's internal review when veterans may be at risk. In order for the public to regain confidence in VAs health-care system, President Obama must direct Sec. Shinseki to take emergency steps to ensure veterans who may have fallen victim to these schemes get the medical treatment they need. Additionally, President Obama must direct Shinseki to ensure VA officials in Washington are working to safeguard evidence of possible wrongdoing at local VA facilities so VA employees who may have allowed patients to fall through the cracks will be properly held to account.
U.S. Rep. David Jolly, R-Fla., waded into the issue on Wednesday, insisting Obama was doing little to help solve the problem.
The VA Health Care System is experiencing a historic crisis and yet our president suggests the solution to this crisis can be found in business-as-usual bureaucracy, Jolly said. The president did nothing today to ensure we, as a nation, immediately address the systemic problems in portions of our veterans health-care system, nor the threat to human life that has been created by bureaucratic incompetence within the his administration. The president spoke rhetorically about unacceptable wait times for veterans to get needed health care but did nothing to address the American peoples wait time for this administration to solve this problem now. It has been 23 days since allegations of death arose and today we heard no urgency from the president.
What the president announced today was more bureaucracy, more investigations, more studying of the issue, and ultimately a continuation of business as usual within the VA until the president and secretary choose, on their timeline, when to actually take decisive action, Jolly continued. He spoke of holding personnel accountable, but he never once spoke of terminations of the personnel responsible for the loss of human life, nor whether alleged negligence within the department has criminal implications. The president is out of touch with every American on this issue.
Jolly pointed to a bill from Miller which would make it easier for the secretary to fire or demote VA officials. The House passed the bill on Wednesday.
This afternoon the House will pass a bill that I have co-sponsored to give the administration authority to expedite the removal of anyone who presided over this mismanagement and negligence within the VA, Jolly said. I hope the presidents administration quickly uses this authority and then swiftly enacts the necessary institutional changes within the VA. The president should personally attend to this matter each day until sufficient institutional changes are made to ensure this never happens again. The presidents comments today do little to suggest he will actually do so.
In the meantime on Wednesday, Gov. Rick Scott joined other Republicans -- including U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., and U.S. Rep. Rich Nugent, R-Fla., in calling for Shinseki to resign. Scott appeared on WJXT in Jacksonville and was asked where the buck stops and who was responsible for the VA medical facility problems.
It stops at the secretary, Scott said. It stops with the president. Im a veteran. I have a lot of friends that are veterans. My father was in the 82nd Airborne. This is personal. They served their time, they should get great care. What were seeing is: there are deaths and we know there are injuries. The assistant secretary said, we dont know if there is a correlation between harm and death. Give me a break. Shinseki needs to resign. We need to have new leadership.
Even as Republicans continue to pressure Obama on the matter, he insisted on Wednesday the VA needs to work with Congress.
I welcome Congress as a partner in our efforts not just to address the current controversies, but to make sure were doing right by our veterans across the board, Obama said. I served on the Veterans Affairs Committee when I was in the Senate, and it was one of the proudest pieces of business that I did in the Legislature. And I know the folks over there care deeply about our veterans.
It is important that our veterans dont become another political football, especially when so many of them are receiving care right now. This is an area where Democrats and Republicans should always be working together, Obama added. Even as we get to the bottom of what happened at Phoenix and other facilities, all of us, whether here in Washington or all across the country, have to stay focused on the larger mission, which is upholding our sacred trust to all of our veterans, bringing the VA system into the 21st century -- which is not an easy task.
Reach Kevin Derby at email@example.com.