- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 8, 2015

Ignoring calls by veterans and Republicans to visit a Veterans Affairs hospital in Phoenix that launched a health care scandal, President Obama gave a speech about homeownership instead Thursday — less than a mile from the VA facility.

Mr. Obama announced a plan to cut mortgage fees charged by the Federal Housing Authority, saying the move will save the average family $900 per year and will make it easier for people to buy their first home. It’s part of his agenda for his State of the Union address on Jan. 20.

“Today’s action will mean more money in the pockets of families,” Mr. Obama told supporters at a high school. “Hundreds of thousands of new buyers is going to mean a healthier housing market for everybody.”

The president said the nation has largely recovered from the housing crisis, which he said was caused in part by “folks who borrowed more than they should have.” He said his policies won’t allow that to happen again.

“Don’t buy something you can’t afford,” Mr. Obama told the crowd. “You’re going to be out of luck. These [mortgage] rates are for responsible buyers. We’re not going down the road again of financing folks buying things they can’t afford. The days of making bad bets on the backs of taxpayer money and then getting bailed out afterwards … we’re not going back to that.”

The president’s motorcade sped right past the Phoenix VA hospital where the nationwide scandal erupted last year. VA staffers — with administrators’ knowledge — failed to provide care to veterans in the mandated time frame, instead placing veterans on secret waiting lists to hide delays in care.

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Republicans blasted the president for driving past the hospital without stopping.

“It is a testament to this president’s misplaced priorities that he would choose a photo op for his next executive action over visiting the VA hospital where veterans died on secret government waiting lists instead of getting care,” said Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, California Republican, said Mr. Obama “needs to change his priorities.”

“It’s time for the White House to stop blocking bipartisan bills that the people want and get to work on real solutions and genuine reform,” Mr. McCarthy said. “Don’t drive past the problems, Mr. President. Start helping us fix them.”

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Mr. Obama never seriously considered visiting the VA hospital because the trip to Arizona was focused on the state’s hard-hit housing industry. But he said the VA under Mr. Obama has undertaken reforms, and the Phoenix facility has reduced wait times for appointments by 30 percent.

“The president is certainly pleased they have made these kinds of improvements,” Mr. Earnest said. “This is a priority for this administration. But there’s obviously a lot more to do, and the president is going to continue to make sure that these issues are getting the focus that they need internally.”

Mr. Obama tapped former Procter & Gamble CEO Robert McDonald as VA secretary to fix the problems and approved $16 billion in additional VA spending. But veterans groups said the president still hasn’t visited a VA hospital since the problems were uncovered.

“Unfortunately, President Obama has yet to show leadership in the fight to reform and fix the VA,” said Pete Hegseth, head of Concerned Veterans for America. “Instead, members of his administration have repeatedly tried to downplay the scandal — going so far as to whitewash reports on the deaths of veterans as the result of the use of secret wait lists, including at the Phoenix VA hospital. He should start by taking a one-mile detour and visiting the scandal-plagued VA hospital in Phoenix.”

Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, noted that Mr. Obama was near “the epicenter of the VA scandal, where dozens of veterans died while waiting for basic care.”

Mr. Boehner told reporters that Congress took some steps last year to fix the VA’s problems.

“But the system is still broken and needs to be fundamentally transformed in a way that puts the needs of veterans before the needs of the bureaucracy,” Mr. Boehner said. “We call on the president to offer a long-term vision for reforming the systemic problems at the VA. We’ve yet to see it.”

Democratic lawmakers have been pushing Mr. Obama to reduce the FHA’s mortgage fees, saying the housing market has largely recovered from the crisis that left millions of homeowners holding mortgages that cost more than their home’s market value. But the FHA’s finances have been hit hard since the crisis, and the agency needed an emergency infusion of $1.7 billion from the Treasury Department in 2013 to cover a gap in its insurance fund.

House Republicans held hearings last year criticizing the agency’s management. House Committee on Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling, Texas Republican, said Mr. Obama’s plan will make the FHA’s finances “even worse.”

“Such an action by the president would be a grave mistake that will end up hurting hardworking taxpayers,” Mr. Hensarling said in a statement.

• Dave Boyer can be reached at dboyer@washingtontimes.com.

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