With criticism and anger mounting on both sides of the aisle, the White House on Tuesday struggled to explain exactly when President Obama learned of lengthy wait times and false reporting at Veterans Affairs health care facilities but defended its larger effort to improve care for the nation’s veterans.
A day after claiming the president learned from TV news reports of accusations that as many as 40 veterans died while waiting for treatment at a Phoenix VA hospital, White House press secretary Jay Carney said the burgeoning scandal is “not a new issue” to Mr. Obama.
“The president, as we all know, has been talking about the issues and challenges facing VA since he was a candidate. And it was precisely those problems that had been identified and discussed in 2006, 2007 and 2008 that he spoke about as a candidate and that led him to commit to increased resources,” Mr. Carney told reporters. “So no, this is not a new issue to the president. That’s why he has been focused on it since he’s been president.”
That defense has only raised new questions about why, if the administration knew of potentially life-threatening wait times at VA facilities and efforts by VA employees to conceal the real numbers, something wasn’t done years ago — long before CNN revealed the specific Phoenix accusations.
On Monday, after The Washington Times reported that Mr. Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. learned even before taking office in 2008 of problems at VA facilities, Mr. Carney defended the administration’s approach, saying the president consistently asked Congress for more money for the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The department’s inspector general has launched a separate probe.
Those inquiries, however, may prove too little, too late for critics, who have taken aim at the administration’s handling of what looks to be a deep-rooted, systemic problem inside the VA.
“I’m disturbed by statements out of the White House that say the president heard about the VA scandal in the news,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican, said Tuesday.
Sen. John Thune, South Dakota Republican, said the president too often learns of problems within the federal government from news reports or other outside accounts, suggesting Mr. Obama doesn’t have a handle on operations in his own administration.
“This is not an isolated, one-off thing,” Mr. Thune said Tuesday on Fox News Channel. “[With] the president finding out from the news media, you’ve got to start asking the question, where’s the accountability, where’s the responsibility to take care of those people who have literally laid their lives on the line?”
Mr. Thune has introduced a bill requiring the VA inspector general to investigate the delays of treatment, including reports of secret waiting lists to conceal the delays that may have led to the deaths in Phoenix.
Lawmakers also say their efforts to look into the VA have been hampered.
House Veterans Affairs’ Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, Florida Republican, said the department provided a “clearly inadequate response” this week to a congressional subpoena seeking information about the reported wait lists at the Phoenix facility.