WASHINGTON — Growing allegations of mismanagement at veterans hospitals across the country are threatening to engulf President Obama in another scandal that brings into question his ability to make government work.
As a candidate, Obama denounced delays and poor care for veterans at hospitals run by the Department of Veterans Affairs and vowed that his administration would fix the backlogs and dramatically improve care for those returning from the battlefield.
In a speech in 2008, Obama pledged to build “a 21st century VA” and promised to confront what he called “the broken bureaucracy of the VA – the impossibly long lines, or the repeated calls for help that get you nothing more than an answering machine.”
But 5 1/2 years into his presidency, Obama has once again found himself exposed to political danger by a bureaucracy that seems out of his immediate control.
The president is now facing fresh allegations that officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs manipulated wait times to hide the long delays many patients faced to see physicians. Aides said he learned of the specific allegations in news reports.
Obama’s apparent lack of awareness about the current problems at the department has drawn the expected scorn from across the political spectrum, and will probably increase this week as lawmakers return to Capitol Hill. But it has also prompted a new round of condemnation from liberal pop culture allies like Jon Stewart of Comedy Central – an indication that anger about the allegations has moved beyond the halls of Congress.
Stewart on Monday lashed out at Obama and his top officials for not doing enough to fix the problems. And he mocked the president’s top officials, including Eric Shinseki, the secretary of veterans affairs, for their tepid expressions of outrage and anger in recent days.
Reacting to Shinseki’s declaration that he was “mad as hell” about the allegations, Stewart ranted that, “You don’t look mad,” adding that “your ‘mad as hell' face looks a lot like your, ‘Oh, we’re out of orange juice face.’”
In responding to the allegations of delays at veterans hospitals, the Obama White House has embraced what has become a familiar public relations pattern in dealing with political crises: Administration officials have declared their outrage as they urge patience while an investigation by the department’s inspector general is completed.
“We believe that the right thing to do is to fully investigate, fully review, take action to fix the problems that are identified, and make sure that the services are being provided to our veterans,” Jay Carney, the president’s press secretary, said Monday.
The White House has also borrowed a page from its response to the debacle of the rollout of HealthCare.gov, when Obama sent a top management official to help repair the website. Last week, Obama ordered his deputy chief of staff, Rob Nabors, to review the allegations at the veterans hospitals.
Aide sent to VA
Carney said Monday that Nabors is now working at the Veterans Affairs headquarters a few blocks from the White House. Carney also noted that Obama has successfully fought to increase the budget for the veterans affairs department and to broaden access to disability claims for veterans.
Carney said Obama’s administration has mounted “an incredibly aggressive attack on the problem of the huge backlog in disability claims, one that was exacerbated for the right reasons by this administration because we committed to veterans who suffer from illnesses associated with exposure to Agent Orange.” He also noted that the administration expanded the ability of veterans to make claims for suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
So far, White House officials have waved aside calls for Shinseki to resign in much the same way they rejected calls for the resignation of Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, in the months before she finally announced that she would step down over the botched health care rollout. Carney said Monday that the president still “has confidence” in Shinseki.
But that is not likely to stop Obama’s critics in Congress – especially Republicans – from seeking to use the allegations at the veterans hospitals to their political advantage ahead of this fall’s elections.
White House officials are sure to denounce such attacks as political opportunism, much the same way they have criticized the Republican focus on wrongdoing at the IRS and unanswered questions about the 2012 attack at a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya.
But it may be more difficult for the administration to accuse Republicans of conducting a partisan witch-hunt in the case of the veterans hospitals because some of the critics are not Republicans. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said at a hearing last week that the FBI should be called in to investigate.
“Isn’t there evidence here of criminal wrongdoing, that is falsifying records, false statements to the federal government? That’s a crime,” Blumenthal told Shinseki.