President Obama broke his silence Wednesday on the brewing VA hospital scandal.
At a White House press conference, he said he "will not stand for" alleged misconduct, including "cooking the books" to hide delays in care, some of which allegedly led to patient deaths.
"If these allegations prove to be true, it is dishonorable. It is disgraceful. And I will not tolerate it, period." If misconduct is discovered, "it will be punished."
Acknowledging that people are angry and "want swift reckoning," he stressed that time is needed for a full investigation to take place. Amid calls to fire VA head Eric Shinseki, Obama called him a "great soldier" who's "put his heart and soul" into the department. Initial investigation results are due next week.
In the meantime, White House deputy chief of staff Rob Nabors is reviewing the situation from Phoenix, the site of the first allegations; chief of staff Denis McDonough met with the Senate VA committee chair yesterday, and the House is set to vote on a bill boosting the VA secretary's authority to fire top execs.
Earlier this month, sources told CNN the VA hospital in Phoenix had a secret "waiting list" for patients seeking care, apparently in order to hide vast delays in appointments at the hospital. Officials sent an "official" list of appointments to Washington that showed patients getting care in a timely manner. But there was allegedly a second list they kept secret, on which 1,400 to 1,600 veterans were forced to wait for months just to see a doctor. At least 40 people seeking care there died waiting.
A second hospital in Fort Collins, CO, turned up, facing the same allegations, followed by facilities in North Carolina, Texas, and Wyoming have also faced allegations of attempting to cover up long waiting times. Currently, 26 VA facilities are under investigation in the scandal.
Lawmakers – particularly Republicans – hope to turn this into a political bludgeon against the president but it's arguable whether they have any credibility in this matter.
Problems with the Veterans Administration have been ongoing for more than 30 years. In 2007, the Washington Post reported that over the past 5½ years, hundreds of wounded Iraq and Afghanistan veterans had overwhelmed Walter Reed Army Medical Center's outpatient system. Despite a surgical hospital that stood as the crown jewel of military medicine, years of sustained combat transformed the hospital into little more than a holding ground for physically and psychologically damaged outpatients. The overcrowding was so bad that hundreds of soldiers had to be released from hospital beds and placed in dozens of nearby hotels and rat-infested apartments leased by the Army, where they waited for treatment an average of 10 months and as long as two years.
Seven years later, not much seems to have changed.
The VA covers 8 million veterans. It has 200,000 employees, 20,000 of which do nothing but make doctor's appointments for veterans. They make 100 million appointments a year. That's hardly surprising after two ground wars lasting more than a decade, combined.
It was Shinseki, then head of the army, who warned that we'd need about 400,000 troops to handle the Iraq war and postwar reconstruction. Then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz trashed that estimate and publicly berated Shinseki, saying we'd need only 75,000.
We eventually sent about 200,000 troops but Shinseki turned out to be right, and the nation has been paying for spreading our forces too thin ever since, with soldiers doing multiple tours that shouldn't have and wouldn't have had we heeded General Shinseki's advice.
Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz were the same guys who said the cost of the war and postwar reconstruction would only run $60-95 billion, and the bulk of reconstruction would come from Iraqi oil. Is anyone holding Rumsfeld or Wolfowitz accountable, or the lawmakers who supported them?
As a Harvard study found last year, when you account for the medical care of wounded veterans and expensive repairs to a force depleted by more than a decade of fighting, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will, long-term, cost taxpayers $4-to-$6 trillion dollars.
Consider this statistic: The peak year, the year we spent the most money in disability benefits for veterans of World War One – which ended in 1918 – was 1969.
So in the end, what we're really facing today is this: We started two questionable ground wars, never thought about the cost of caring for soldiers when they came home, and now we're wondering why these people can't get an appointment at a hospital.
It should be noted that President Bush's budget for 2009 called to cut and then permanently freeze the federal budget for the Veterans Administration. In other words, just as the Iraq War was winding down, and with President Bush well in the clear of any political price to pay, his plan was to rob the war veterans and their families by cutting veterans' benefits so he could balance the federal budget.
President Obama, it should also be noted, is once again seeking an increase in spending for veterans. He wants a 6.5 percent bump in veterans spending over 2014 levels, to $163.9 billion. Two years ago, when he asked for such an increase, House Republicans turned him down. More recently in the Senate, a bill that would've expanded benefits to America's veterans was defeated when 41 senators voted against it. They are all Republicans.
That vote, the House rebuff of this White House's efforts for veterans, and the overlooked wretched conditions of Walter Reed in 2007 – years of decay, at a time of war – should make very clear why no Republican has any moral authority to castigate others about "supporting the troops."
Democrats don't deserve a pass here, and the president, too, was slow to address a problem all of Washington has known about for decades, but Republicans, who often use patriotic rhetoric and military symbolism on the campaign trail, who might consider thinking twice before using the latest scandal to attack the president.
And those who supported those wars are every bit as responsible as the lawmakers who sold that lemon to them. We love to "support the troops" when we're sending them off to battle, but not after they come home. Where is that galvanized public today? And lawmakers? They're so obsessed with electoral power that it's all about getting President Obama when they should be holding themselves accountable for supporting policies that have delivered millions of veterans who now need assistance, but whom lawmakers neglected for years, even after a horrendous debacle like what was uncovered at Walter Reed seven years ago, and will continue to do despite what's been uncovered in Phoenix and elsewhere today.
But at least we have another committee to look into Benghazi.