WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama vowed Wednesday to get to the bottom of allegations of neglect of veterans’ health care and made clear Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki’s job may be on the line as he scrambled to contain a budding controversy.
“If these allegations prove to be true, it is dishonorable, it is disgraceful, and I will not tolerate it, period,” an angry-sounding Obama said.
The president appeared in the White House news briefing room moments after meeting Shinseki and Rob Nabors, the top Obama aide who is leading a review into allegations that long wait times for veterans seeking medical treatment could have led to some deaths.
He said he expects to get the preliminary results of a review about the scope of the problem at the Veterans Administration next week.
“When I hear allegations of misconduct, any misconduct, whether it’s allegations of VA staff covering up long wait times or cooking the books, I will not stand for it, not as commander in chief, but also not as an American,” Obama said.
He sidestepped a question as to whether Shinseki had tendered his resignation, but hinted that the retired four-star general may not want to stay on if it turns out the allegations are as sweeping as suggested.
“If he thinks he’s let our veterans down, then I’m sure that he is not going to be interested in continuing to serve,” Obama said. “At this stage, Ric is committed to solving the problem and working with us to do it.”
Until now the White House has insisted Shinseki enjoyed Obama’s confidence and officials have drawn parallels between him and Kathleen Sebelius, who stayed on as secretary of health and human services for months trying to clean up problems with the rollout of Obama’s signature health care law.
The veterans controversy has exploded in the midst of an election year in which Republicans seem poised to make gains in Congress against Obama’s Democrats.
“We need answers, leadership and accountability, none of which we’ve seen from the Obama administration to date,” said Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
The Republican-controlled House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed legislation that would give Shinseki greater authority to fire or demote VA employees for nonperformance.
“If you don’t do your job, you get fired,” said Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida, the Republican chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
Instead, he said Phoenix VA medical center director Sharon Helman, who was put on administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation into allegations that long wait times for care at the local VA hospital and clinics were covered up, received an $8,500 bonus in April.
Shinseki on Wednesday rescinded that bonus, which was granted in error, the VA said.
The VA reports are the latest allegations of bureaucratic mismanagement to hit the Obama administration after the botched the rollout of the national health care website and the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative groups for special scrutiny.
The flap is particularly biting for Obama because he and his wife, Michelle, have put much time into caring for veterans who have returned from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, many of them with disabling injuries.
Nabors, a deputy White House chief of staff, traveled to Phoenix on Wednesday to look into allegations of long wait times for veterans seeking health care.
It is alleged that doctors at the veterans facility there were ordered to put names on a secret waiting list for months, until a spot opened up on an official list, in a bid to make the waiting times appear shorter.
Three senior officials in Phoenix were put on administrative leave, and two top health officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs have resigned.
Similar allegations have been made at other veterans medical facilities, and CNN reported Tuesday that 26 were under investigation.
The Republican-led House of Representatives is preparing to start debate on a proposed bill that would make it easier for the department to fire or demote senior executives. A vote is expected this week.
The Veteran Affairs department oversees some 1,700 hospitals, clinics, nursing homes and other facilities, making it the nation’s largest health care organization.