WASHINGTON — Lawmakers on Wednesday criticized President Barack Obama’s decision to stand by his embattled Veterans Affairs chief even as investigations into failed federal health care procedures spread to 26 facilities including Colorado.
“Veterans are dying and this administration is making excuses,” said Colorado Rep. Mike Coffman, a Marine Corps combat veteran. “This is completely unacceptable.”
Colorado Republican Rep. Cory Gardner has also called on the president to start holding VA officials accountable, and did not seem encouraged by Obama’s statements during a Wednesday press conference.
“It’s time to take people to the woodshed and to kick some butt,” Gardner said. “This is no way to treat our men and women in uniform, who deserve the best treatment.”
Obama indicated that VA Secretary Eric Shinseki had not offered his resignation, and said he would wait until numerous investigations have been completed before determining if and where there is a problem at regional health care centers.
Obama ordered a White House review of the VA’s “approach” to health care and said Shinseki would also conduct his own investigation.
“I want specific recommendations on how VA can up their game,” Obama said.
The independent investigation by the inspector general has been ongoing since December and is focused on the Arizona hospital where more than 20 veterans died after they were secretly wait-listed and denied treatment. It was revealed two weeks ago that secret wait-listing had also occurring at a Fort Collins hospital although no deaths there have been reported.
“So if these allegations prove to be true, it is dishonorable, it is disgraceful, and I will not tolerate it – period,” Obama said.
“I know that people are angry and want a swift reckoning. I sympathize with that. But we have to let the investigators do their job and get to the bottom of what happened. Our veterans deserve to know the facts. Their families deserve to know the facts. And once we know the facts, I assure you — if there is misconduct, it will be punished,” Obama said.
Obama has ignored calls from Democrats and Republicans that Shinseki be fired, and attempted to placate critics last week by announcing that a top VA health official had resigned. However, that official had already announced his retirement and a replacement had already been hired.
Obama said during the press conference that some individuals have been put on administrative leave but provided no details.
“I was very disappointed with President Obama today,” said Rep. David Scott, Georgia Democrat. “There was no urgency. Mr. President, we need urgency, we need you to roll up our sleeves and get into these hospitals!”
Just hours after the president’s appearance, the House voted overwhelmingly 390 to 33 including the Colorado delegation to give the VA the authority to clean house and fire senior employees for poor performance.
Meanwhile, the $8,500 bonus received by the administrator of the Arizona hospital after the inspector general began the investigation has since been rescinded.
“It defies logic that under the current system, when a senior executive at the VA fails to do their job, they are more likely to be rewarded and promoted than fired,” said Colorado Republican Rep. Scott Tipton, who cosponsored the bill.
“We’ve heard countless stories from veterans in our district that have experienced delays, cancelations or a lack of response altogether at the VA,” Tipton said. “This is happening here in the 3rd District and across the nation, and it has to stop.”
Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Obama had essentially denied the reports coming out of Arizona and Colorado.
“President Obama and General Shinseki are doing this for one reason: It’s about damage control for the president,” Moran said.
“It should be about damage control for our veterans.”