Updated May 21, 11:15 a.m. EDT | Seeking to head off a growing furor over veterans’ health care, President Barack Obama declared Wednesday that allegations of misconduct at Veterans Affairs hospitals are “dishonorable” and will be not be tolerated by his administration.
“I will not stand for it — not as commander in chief but also not as an American,” Obama said following an Oval Office meeting with embattled VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.
The Obama administration is under mounting pressure from Capitol Hill to address troubling allegations of treatment delays and preventable deaths at VA hospitals. The VA Inspector General’s office said late Tuesday that 26 facilities are being investigated nationwide — up from 10 just last week — including a Phoenix hospital where 40 veterans allegedly died while waiting for treatment and staff there kept a secret list of patients waiting for appointments to hide delays in care.
Obama said that anybody found to have to have manipulated records will be held accountable. But he appealed for patience as his deputy chief of staff, Rob Nabors, undertakes a review of VA policies, which is expected to be finished next week.
The president spoke hours before the House was scheduled to vote later Wednesday on a bill that would grant the VA secretary more authority to fire or demote senior executives. The White House has said it shares the goals of the House measure — to ensure accountability at the VA — but has concerns about some of the details.
Original report May 21, 10:25 a.m. EDT | WASHINGTON — The White House moved Wednesday to address the growing furor over allegations of misconduct at the Department of Veterans Affairs, summoning VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to an Oval Office meeting, hours before the House was scheduled to vote on a bill that would grant the secretary more authority to fire or demote senior executives.
President Barack Obama was expected to address the troubling allegations of treatment delays and preventable deaths at VA hospitals in a statement from the White House following his meeting with Shinseki. Also present for the meeting will be White House Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors, who was assigned to oversee a review of the VA health care system.
The VA’s Office of Inspector General said late Tuesday the number of VA facilities being investigated nationwide for problems had expanded to 26. Acting Inspector General Richard Griffin told a Senate committee last week that 10 facilities were being investigated.
The House bill would target about 450 career employees at the VA who serve as hospital directors or executives in the agency’s 21 regions.
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.
The VA’s “widespread and systemic lack of accountability is exacerbating all of its most pressing problems,” including revelations that the department maintained secret waiting lists to cover up long delays in patient appointments and a mounting toll of preventable deaths of veterans, Miller said.
Miller accused the VA of a “well-documented reluctance to ensure its leaders are held accountable for mistakes” and said Congress has an obligation to “give the VA secretary the authority he needs to fix things. That’s what my bill would do.”
Presidential spokesman Jay Carney said the White House shares the goals of the House bill — to ensure accountability at the VA — but was concerned about some of the details.
The House legislation comes as Nabors prepares to travel to Phoenix to meet with staff at the VA office where the crisis began after allegations of delayed care that may have led to patient deaths and a cover-up by top administrators.
A former clinic director said that as many as 40 veterans may have died while awaiting treatment at the Phoenix hospital and that staff, at the instruction of administrators, kept a secret list of patients waiting for appointments to hide delays in care.
Investigators probing the claims say they have so far not linked any patient deaths in Phoenix to delayed care.
Nabors will meet Thursday with administrators in Phoenix, including interim director Steve Young, Carney said.
The current director of the Phoenix VA Health Care System, Sharon Helman, has been placed on leave indefinitely while the VA’s inspector general investigates the claims raised by several former VA employees.
Shinseki and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel met with the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday to discuss how the Veterans Affairs and Defense departments can improve interactions between their health records systems. The two Cabinet members said in a joint statement that the meeting was productive and said both men share the same goal: to improve health outcomes of active-duty military, veterans and beneficiaries.
Meanwhile, two Republican senators introduced legislation to prohibit payment of bonuses to employees at the Veterans Health Administration through next year. Sens. Richard Burr of North Carolina and Deb Fischer of Nebraska said the VA should focus its spending on fixing problems at the agency, “not rewarding employees entrenched in a failing bureaucracy.” Burr is the senior Republican on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and Fischer is on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The House passed a bill in February that would eliminate performance bonuses for the department’s senior executive staff through 2018.
Sen. John Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, also called on Obama to back off plans to nominate Jeffrey Murawsky to replace the VA’s undersecretary for health care, Robert Petzel, who has stepped down. Murawsky, a career VA administrator, directly supervised Helman from 2010 to 2012.
The White House has said Obama remains confident in Shinseki’s leadership and is standing behind Murawsky’s nomination.
AP White House Correspondent Julie Pace contributed to this report.