WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama delivered a forceful defense of his veterans policies Wednesday, saying that caring for veterans and their families is "one of the causes of my presidency" and vowing to punish those responsible for long wait times and other serious problems at military medical centers.
Speaking at a hastily scheduled White House news conference, Mr. Obama sought to reassure lawmakers, veterans and others outraged over allegations that staffers at some Department of Veterans Affairs facilities had doctored records to cover up lengthy wait times, and that some patients had died while waiting for care. He said an investigation into allegations of wrongdoing would be completed by next month, and that those responsible for problems would be held accountable.
But Mr. Obama, who along with his wife has made veterans issues a centerpiece of his administration, also defended his overall attention to veterans issues. He said a backlog in disability claims at VA had been reduced, and described the wait-time woes as "a problem for decades, and it's been compounded by more than a decade of war."
"So if these allegations prove to be true, it is dishonorable, it is disgraceful, and I will not tolerate it, period," the president said, adding: "Once we know the facts, I assure you if there is misconduct, it will be punished."
The remarks illustrate the perils facing Mr. Obama if he cannot get a handle on the expanding VA allegations, which now include theft of pharmaceuticals from VA clinics as well as falsification of appointment records. The scandal threatens to echo the administration's botched handling of the Obamacare website last fall -- another instance in which one of Mr. Obama's signature achievements was undermined by managerial ineptitude that sowed doubts about the government's ability to serve ordinary citizens' needs.
The House voted 390-33 Wednesday to pass the VA Accountability Act, which would make it easier for the VA secretary to fire career employees or managers found to be hampering veterans' care. Groups representing the VA's senior career workforce warned that the measure could violate federal employee due-process rules and needlessly politicize senior career government workers' ranks.
Republicans in Congress, as well as some veterans representatives, said the president needed to do more to tackle VA problems.
"I am genuinely shocked that President Obama continues to avoid taking any sort of meaningful action to jump-start the reform process at the VA," said Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., an Iraq war veteran. "While the president waits on a report, our veterans are stuck waiting for care."
The VA inspector general is looking into allegations by a former Phoenix clinic director that as many as 40 veterans died while awaiting treatment at a VA hospital, while staffers disguised wait times patients faced. The inspector general told a Senate hearing last week that his initial probe has found no evidence that delays caused the deaths. The VA has tentatively concluded that extended wait times are a problem at no more than one-sixth of the nation's 150 VA medical facilities, said individuals who asked not to be identified to discuss internal agency deliberations.
The president said time spent with wounded troops had been "the most searing moments of my presidency." He said he ordered VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to complete a preliminary review of long wait times and false record-keeping at VA medical centers by next week. Mr. Obama's deputy chief of staff, Rob Nabors, will finalize a separate report on a broader survey of the agency's health system within a month, the president said.
But Mr. Obama also delivered a strong endorsement of the embattled VA director. Mr. Shinseki, the first Asian-American to reach the rank of four-star general, did two combat tours of duty in Vietnam, winning a Purple Heart with an Oak Leaf Cluster for a combat injury that cost him much of his right foot.
"Ric Shinseki has been a great soldier. He himself is a disabled veteran, and nobody cares more about our veterans than Ric Shinseki," Mr. Obama said. "So I know he cares about it deeply. ... We're going to work with him to solve the problem, but I am going to make sure that there is accountability throughout the system after I get the full report."
That defense put the president at odds with some veterans groups urging Mr. Shinseki's ouster. American Legion executive director Peter Gaytan pointed to an April 26, 2010, memo from a Shinseki underling warning facility employees against using "inappropriate scheduling practices, sometimes referred to as 'gaming strategies,' " to improve a clinic's seeming performance.