President Obama speaks to reporters about the burgeoning scandal at the Veterans Affairs Department on May 21, 2014.

President Obama speaks to reporters about the burgeoning scandal at the Veterans Affairs Department on May 21, 2014. Charles Dharapak/AP

Fixing the VA Is (Finally) Obama’s Problem

By shielding VA Secretary Shinseki, President Obama just took ownership of the problem. Now he has to prove that his administration can finally fix it. By Stephanie Gaskell

In 2008, Sen. Barack Obama vowed to fix the Department of Veterans Affairs if elected president. But over the past 5 years, problem after problem has emerged: a massive case backlog, delayed GI Bill payments, a stalled electronic records system, and now allegations that federal employees have been lying about wait times at VA hospitals.

The impact in Washington, after last month’s allegations that 40 veterans died while waiting for appointments at a hospital in Phoenix, is that it has finally become clear that the VA’s problems aren’t going away any time soon. Now the embattled agency is threatening to become as big a headache for the Obama administration as Benghazi. Calls for Shinseki’s resignation have grown louder in recent weeks as similar allegations against other VA hospitals across the country have come to light. And in testimony on the Hill last week, the VA’s own inspector general said the problems with wait times have been known for years.

So when the news came out Wednesday morning that President Barack Obama was holding a press conference after meeting with Eric Shinseki at the White House, betting began immediately over whether the Veterans Affairs secretary was getting fired. Instead, Obama took to the podium, vowed to get to the bottom of it and urged patience. In defending Shinseki, Obama has now put the task of fixing the VA squarely on his own shoulders.

There’s nowhere left to hide. “The responsibility for things always rests ultimately with me, as the president and commander-in-chief,” Obama said.

“We all know that it often takes too long for veterans to get the care that they need. That’s not a new development. It’s been a problem for decades and it’s been compounded by more than a decade of war,” he said.  

In his 20-minute press conference in the White House briefing room, Obama endorsed his man (“Nobody cares more about our veterans than Ric Shinseki.”), downplayed the Phoenix allegations (“Wait times were for folks who may have had chronic conditions … It was not necessarily a situation where they were calling for emergency services.”), and said anyone caught “cooking the books” would be punished (“I will not stand for it.”) 

But critics say it’s all too little, too late.

“Glad he finally spoke but remarks totally insufficient,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., tweeted.

“His long-overdue remarks gave outraged IAVA members no reason to believe anything will change at the VA anytime soon,” Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America CEO Paul Rieckhoff said.

“The question is this: if the administration has known about these issues for at least four years, why is it just now taking action?” the American Legion said in a statement.

“Every rock that we turn over we are finding that there is a problem,” Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House VA Committee, told CNN. “They’re way behind the curve.”

“You’ve got a crisis here: a crisis of confidence, a crisis of leadership and a crisis of the direction of the VA in the 21st century,” Anthony Principi, who served as VA secretary under President George W. Bush, told POLITCO. “Why this bunker mentality?”

Even Democrats are saying Obama isn’t doing enough. “I think that we need to have new management” at the VA, said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. “It’s not about [Shinseki] alone. It’s about the entire management structure.”

Allegations of employees lying about wait times have now spread to 26 VA hospitals. New charges of drug dealing and bribes at the Miami VA hospital were reported Wednesday. And now the VA says the woman running the VA hospital in Phoenix got an $8,500 bonus while she was being investigated for knowing about secret wait lists.

Still, Obama said, “I don’t yet know how systemic this is.” He’s about to find out.