As veterans groups questioned why President Obama has been mostly silent on the waitlist scandal at a Phoenix medical center, a top administration aide said Sunday that the president is “madder than hell.”
White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said the president is determined to get to the bottom of the scandals at Veterans Affairs facilities, which surfaced about a month ago when a whistleblower revealed documents suggesting that at least 40 veterans died after being placed on a secret list at a Phoenix facility to make wait times appear shorter. Since then, others around the country have shared similar stories, making some wonder if the problem stretches throughout the VA system.
“The president is madder than hell, and I’ve got the scars to prove it,” Mr. McDonough said on “Face the Nation.” “At the same time that we’re looking at accountability, we want to continue to perform to provide our veterans the services that they have earned.”
Mr. McDonough repeatedly talked about how hard the administration has fought for veterans suffering from homelessness, post-traumatic stress disorder and unemployment. When asked what he would tell a veteran who wanted to know why Mr. Obama hasn’t made a public statement on the VA scandal in the past three weeks, Mr. McDonough said he would tell the veteran to remember those successes.
“That veteran would know that the president has been fighting for increased resources for the Veterans Administration. The president has been out time and again fighting to make sure that not only those resources [are] out there but that the country recognizes the sacrifices that those veterans have made,” he said.
Dan Dellinger, national commander of the American Legion, said the administration’s past work for veterans doesn’t excuse its silence on the scandal in Phoenix.
“We realize the administration has done a lot for veterans, but that’s not the issue,” he said later on the show. “The issue is we have veterans die waiting for the care they’ve earned.”
He said veterans need to see the White House make a strong statement that makes it clear issues like this will not be tolerated.
“We need the White House, the president, to come forward. He needs to make a statement to show the employees of VA that this needs to change now,” Mr. Dellinger said. “One death is tragic, but when you hide it, that’s unforgivable.”
The American Legion was the first veterans group to call for VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to step down amid growing allegations of hidden wait lists and delayed care.
“The buck’s gotta stop at the top,” Mr. Dellinger said. “We’ve heard many CEOs lately of major corporations stepping down. If this was the military, you’d be relieved of duty.”
Dr. Robert Petzel, undersecretary of health, resigned on Friday, just one day after Mr. Shinseki testified that he was “mad as hell” alongside Dr. Petzel. But Dr. Petzel was already planning to retire later this year. That makes the resignation “business as usual,” Mr. Dellinger said, not the dramatic culture change that’s needed to fix these problems.
While many veterans groups and GOP lawmakers are calling for Mr. Shinseki to step down, the whistleblower who exposed the Phoenix wait list said it’s best for the secretary to keep his job.
“I think our best bet at this point is to keep the secretary onboard, but I think the president needs to keep him on a pretty short leash,” Dr. Sam Foote said on “Fox News Sunday.”
Finding a new secretary would allow for a months-long grace period “for being the new guy,” Dr. Foote said, while the department needs accountability now. He said accepting the resignation of Dr. Robert Petzel, undersecretary of health at the VA, is a good first step.
One way to fix the problem, Dr. Foote said, is to survey employees on the wait times they hear from patients. He said he asked all of his patients how long they had been waiting and knew wait times ranged between nine months and a year.
After collecting data from staff, Dr. Foote said the government should give VA executives one week to give the real length of wait times. If that number doesn’t match the number from employees, it would immediately be a red flag and require an audit from the inspector general.
Dr. Foote said those in Washington knew the fraud was going on, but didn’t prioritize getting it fixed since it looked like wait times were going down.
“There’s no real incentive on the part of upper management in Washington to get real numbers,” he said.