President Obama stunned veterans, Republican lawmakers and even talk show host Jon Stewart Tuesday by claiming his administration has reduced most veterans’ wait times for a doctor’s appointment to “just a few days,” an assertion that veterans said doesn’t match reality.
Speaking to the annual convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Pittsburgh, Mr. Obama gave a mostly rosy assessment of reforms at the Department of Veterans Affairs under Secretary Robert McDonald, tapped by the president last year to clean up scandals over delayed health care for veterans.
“The VA is handling millions more appointments, inside and outside the VA, and delivering more care,” Mr. Obama said. “On average, veterans are waiting just a few days for an appointment. And that’s all good news.”
The president also said more work needs to be done, and that he’s “still not satisfied” with the VA’s overall performance. But it was Mr. Obama’s claim of “just a few days” that left critics inside and outside the VA system shaking their heads in bewilderment.
“Under President Obama, the VA’s budget has massively increased, yet the backlog of disability claims more than doubled in his first term … wait times for health care have increased, and the department remains devoid of any sort of accountability,” said Dan Caldwell, legislative and political director of Concerned Veterans for America. “Even after the VA wait list scandal and another funding increase from Congress as part of the VA reform bill passed last summer, wait times for health care have continued to increase and veterans have a ‘choice card’ most are unable to use.”
Critics also pointed to a study by The Washington Post last month that found the number of veterans on wait lists for health care has risen 50 percent in the past year.
“One out of every three veterans waiting for care at the VA has already died, and President Obama still doesn’t have a plan to change the culture at the VA,” said Cory Fritz, an aide to Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican. “Instead of more hollow platitudes, the president needs to join House Republicans in working to deliver real accountability and reform for our veterans.”
A veteran who works for the VA said it’s taken him five years to get the necessary treatment for hearing loss and a joint ailment. He called Mr. Obama’s claim “stupefyingly untrue.”
“It’s startling that he’d say that in a room full of thousands of vets that have first-hand experience with the red tape and delays,” said the VA worker, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.
A VA spokeswoman said the report on burgeoning waiting lists “is not related to veterans already enrolled in VA who have been determined to be eligible for VA health care.”
“These are pending enrollment application records that, in many cases, lack required medical or military records for completion,” said spokeswoman Walinda West.
She said in the past year, the VA completed 97 percent of appointments within 30 days of the veterans’ preferred date, 93 percent within 14 days, 88 percent within seven days and 22 percent on the same day. Wait times for specialty care are down to an average of five days, she said, with wait times for primary care now an average of four days.
The president also faced criticism later in the day from Mr. Stewart, departing host of “The Daily Show,” in New York, where Mr. Obama traveled to tape an appearance. Mr. Stewart told the president that VA waiting times were back up and “you’ll find almost unanimous agreement that you’ve failed.”
Mr. Obama interrupted him, saying that a lot of troops were coming home from war, placing a greater demand on the VA for services.
“It is my firm belief that we have a sacred duty to these guys and gals. … When they come home, we’re supposed to be there for them,” the president said. “We’ve been able to systematically add resources to the VA. You still have this massive structure with millions of people being served.”
At the VFW convention, Mr. McDonald gave a 30-minute presentation with charts that he said showed how the agency’s leadership is “transforming” the VA.
He said the VA needs large budget increases to handle aging veterans and to be able to modernize VA hospitals.
Mr. Obama’s proposed 2016 VA budget of $168.8 billion would sharply boost funding, but Mr. McDonald said the House would cut that by $1.4 billion.
VA officials told Congress earlier this month that the agency is facing a nearly $3 billion shortfall, and that it needs an infusion of funds rapidly to avert closing some hospitals.
House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, Florida Republican, and Rep. Charlie W. Dent, Pennsylvania Republican and chair of the Appropriations subcommittee on military construction and veterans affairs, said Tuesday they “will not allow the VA’s failures to close care facilities or furlough the personnel our veterans rely on every day.”
“America’s veterans must not be penalized for the VA’s inability to do its job,” they said in a joint statement. “This is far from the first time the VA has disclosed problems far too late and turned its blatant mismanagement into a fiscal emergency. Two months ago, the VA couldn’t tell Congress it was overbudget. Two weeks ago, it couldn’t tell Congress it would be shutting down hospitals next month. No viable organization can function this way.”
Mr. Obama said the Republicans’ budget for fiscal 2016 “falls short” of what is needed for the VA.
“It’s another reminder that the best way to protect VA funding going forward … is to get rid of sequestration for good,” he said of spending caps. “That’s how we’re going to make sure that our veterans have the resources they need.”
The president said Mr. McDonald “is bringing energetic new leadership” to the agency.
“To all the veterans who spoke up, I want you to know we heard you,” Mr. Obama said. “Today, the VA is handling millions more appointments.”
But the president did acknowledge “our work is not done,” and that the VA is “struggling” to keep up with demand for health care and other services.
“We’ve still got a big challenge,” Mr. Obama told the veterans. “In some places, wait times are higher. I want you to know, I’m still not satisfied, Bob’s still not satisfied. We are not going to let up. We’re going to keep fighting for the resources you need.”
The president said his administration will ask Congress for the “flexibility” to fill the VA’s budget gap “quickly, this month.”
The president also touted the VA having cut its claims backlog by about 80 percent, but acknowledged that it has resulted in more appeals that take longer to resolve.
“I know that it still has taken too long to get a final answer on your appeals,” Mr. Obama said. “So one of our next missions has to be fundamental reform of the claims appeals process so that it works for you, our veterans, and you can actually get final answers faster.” He said the VA has “recruited some of the best talent from Silicon Valley and the private sector — we’re going to put them on the case.”