Barack Obama

By Juliet Eilperin and Ed O’Keefe
May 22, 2014

President 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, 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 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 problem 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 Obama faces if he cannot get a handle on the expanding VA allegations, which now include the stealing of pharmaceuticals from VA clinics as well as the falsification of appointment records. The scandal threatens to echo the administration’s botched handling of the HealthCare.gov Web site last fall — another instance in which one of Obama’s signature achievements was undermined by managerial ineptitude and which sowed doubts about the government’s ability to serve the needs of ordinary citizens.

The House voted 390 to 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 VA’s senior career workforce warned that the measure could violate federal employee due-process rules and needlessly politicize the ranks of senior career government workers.

Republicans in Congress, as well as some veterans representatives, said the president needed to do more to address the problems at VA.

“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.), a veteran of the Iraq war. “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 up to 40 veterans died while waiting for treatment at a VA hospital while staffers disguised the wait times patients faced.

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