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.
Now, in light of the accusations, the White House has dispatched Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors to Phoenix to assist embattled Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki in a full investigation.
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.
“All VA delivered [Monday] was about 200 emails from one official, Dr. Thomas Lynch, and nothing else,” Mr. Miller said in a statement. “Considering the fact that there are supposedly 30 people working on responding to the subpoena and the dearth of information VA provided, I am quickly getting the impression that the department does not want to fully cooperate in this matter.”
It’s not just Republicans who have hammered the Obama administration for its response to the VA revelations.
On Monday, former Sen. Bob Kerrey, Nebraska Democrat, said Mr. Shinseki should resign or be fired in light of the problems coming to light. Powerful groups such as the American Legion, and a number of lawmakers on Capitol Hill, also have called for the secretary to be removed from his post.
Dr. Robert Petzel, the department’s undersecretary for health, stepped down last week. The White House says it has full confidence in Mr. Shinseki’s leadership, though it has stressed that the investigations are aimed at holding responsible parties accountable.
Despite the White House’s defense of its efforts to improve the VA, some Democrats were openly saying it’s time for the president to pay more personal attention to the care given to veterans.
“I think he’s relied on Secretary Shinseki, but we could use his personal attention at this point,” Rep. Tammy Duckworth, Illinois Democrat and an Iraq War veteran who lost both of her legs in combat, told The Washington Post on Tuesday.
The VA inspector general this week also released an audit of the department’s Quick Start program, designed to give service members an easy transition from active service into the VA system when they retire.
The review found that the VA reduced the average wait time to complete a claim from 291 days in 2011 to 249 days for the period of April to June 2013.
But the audit also recommended that the VA make a variety of changes, including “systematic reviews of Quick Start claims processing” and suggested that the department “provide training on issues identified.”
• Maggie Ybarra contributed to this report.