WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama sought Wednesday to head off a growing furor over veterans’ health care, deploring allegations of misconduct at hospitals for military veterans and warning that his administration will not tolerate it.
The Obama administration is under mounting pressure from Congress to address allegations of treatment delays and preventable deaths at hospitals run by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The Veterans Affairs Inspector General’s office said late Tuesday that 26 facilities are being investigated nationwide — up from 10 just last week — including a hospital in Phoenix, Arizona, 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.
“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 controversy has risen to become a top issue in Washington. The treatment of military veterans is an emotional issue that resonates with a wide spectrum of Americans, particularly in the wake of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that grew unpopular as they dragged on.
Shinseki, a retired Army four-star general, is facing calls for his resignation from some lawmakers. Obama spoke warmly of Shinseki Wednesday, saying the secretary had poured his heart and soul into his job, but said there would be accountability if the allegations of misconduct are proven to be true.
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.
Obama’s statement marked his first public comments on the matter in more than two weeks. Last week, he dispatched his deputy chief of staff Rob Nabors to the VA to oversee a review of department policies and ordered him to report back to the White House next month.
The president’s remarks did little to quell the anger over the alleged misconduct.
Republican Sen. John McCain, a military veteran, said Obama’s comments were “wholly insufficient in addressing the fundamental, systemic problems plaguing our veterans’ health care system.” And Paul Rieckhoff, the head of the organization Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, called the president’s words “a tremendous disappointment.”
Nabors, who also took part in the Oval Office meeting, was heading to Phoenix later Wednesday to meet with staff at the VA hospital at the center of the allegations, including interim director Steve Young and other hospital administrators.
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. Investigators probing the claims say they have so far not linked any patient deaths in Phoenix to delayed care.
The allegations have sparked election-year outrage in Congress. 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.
Associated Press writers Matthew Daly and Julie Pace contributed to this report.