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White House rushes to contain VA scandal

Juliet Eilperin and Ed O’Keefe
The Washington Post

The White House is scrambling to contain growing outrage over delays in treatment and rigged record-keeping at veterans hospitals as lawmakers on Capitol Hill prepared to vote Wednesday on a bill designed to help make it easier to fire career employees tied to scandals at the beleaguered Department of Veterans Affairs.

White House press secretary Jay Carney acknowledged that the administration must do more to address problems that have been reported at some of the department’s 152 medical centers. Republicans have seized on the recent VA allegations as potential fodder for this fall’s midterm elections, and a handful of GOP senators has called for the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki.

Carney told reporters Monday that President Obama “has confidence” in Shinseki and White House officials say they will wait for the results of an internal review at the VA before taking any action against high-ranking officials.

The controversy is particularly acute for Obama, who has joined with first lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, the wife of his vice president, in focusing on veterans’ issues as a hallmark of his administration. The White House has pressed successfully for more federal funding for VA, expanded the list of what qualifies for disability treatment and urged private-sector firms to employ veterans once they return from Iraq and Afghanistan.

VA’s inspector general is looking into allegations by a former clinic director in Phoenix that up to 40 veterans died while waiting for treatment at a VA hospital while staffers disguised the wait times that patients faced. Shinseki is conducting his own review with the help of White House deputy chief of staff Rob Nabors, who was temporarily assigned last week to help the agency overhaul its practices.

“We are of the view that the kinds of allegations we have seen need to be investigated rigorously, and once we have all the facts, accountable individuals need to be held to account,” Carney said. “The investigation needs to continue and needs to be completed, and then we can assess what the facts are.”

Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) — an Iraq war veteran, double-amputee and former VA assistant secretary — said in an interview Monday that the recent allegations are similar to problems she faced at the department from 2009 to 2011.

“I’m not surprised, because it’s such a large network that you’re going to find problems,” Duckworth said.

But she expressed support for Shinseki and said he should not resign.

“I think he should fix it,” Duckworth said. “I’m not trying to put words in his mouth here, but I would think that he would want to fix it.”

When asked whether the allegations could affect Obama’s legacy of helping the nation’s military veterans, Duckworth took a long pause before answering.

“It’s hard, because Mrs. Obama has done so much and Mrs. Biden has done so much and I see that as part of the president’s push,” she said. “I think he’s relied on Secretary Shinseki, but we could use his personal attention at this point.”

Obama said at a news conference last month that he took the VA allegations “very seriously,” and White House chief of staff Denis McDonough said Sunday that the president was “madder than hell” about it.

Republican National Committee press secretary Kirsten Kukowski sent an e-mail to reporters Monday — with the tag­line “Mad” — mocking Obama for learning about the VA controversy from CNN, which first reported the Phoenix allegations.

Sens. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and Jerry Moran (D-Kan.), have called for Shinseki’s resignation, and the issue has become a hot topic in some midterm races. House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), however, has said that firing Shinseki would only hamper the administration’s ability to address “systemic” issues at the department.

Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.) said in an interview Monday that politicization of the issue would be “unconscionable.” He said representatives of service organizations who testified before his committee last week agreed that VA continues to provide quality health care to veterans.

“Obviously, there’s an issue that we must focus on — the issue of access and getting veterans into the system and, very significantly, the issue of waiting times,” Sanders said. “We can’t confuse the fact that health care in the system is good, but we have issues with waiting times.”

Carney said a chronic backlog of veterans’ disability claims at VA had been cut nearly in half over the past year. But he said the VA network has been strained by new policies streamlining disability claims for those exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War or suffering post-traumatic stress disorder from serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“This has put significant stress on the system, but it is absolutely the right thing to do,” Carney said.

Military service members who served in Iraq or Afghanistan after Sept. 11, 2001, gave a mixed review of the agency in a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll conducted last year. Fifty-eight percent of respondents said VA is doing an “only fair” or “poor” job of meeting the needs of military veterans, while 38 percent described the job VA is doing as “excellent” or “good.”

Of veterans who use VA for health coverage, however, 82 percent said their overall physical health needs were being met “very” or “somewhat” well, compared with 17 percent who said they were not being met well.

On Wednesday, House lawmakers are expected to approve the VA Accountability Act, a bill sponsored by House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), that would make it easier to fire any “poorly performing” senior VA employees and managers.

Miller and his colleagues wrote the bill in response to a year-long committee investigation that found at least 20 “preventable veteran deaths” in the VA system. The probe also determined that more than 50 veterans were seriously harmed by delays in endoscopies and other procedures in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and other states. The majority of the deaths occurred in 2010 and 2011, according to the report.

“With all the problems VA hospitals and regional offices have recently had and new issues continually arising, we need to give the VA Secretary the authority he needs to fix things,” Miller said in a statement.

Some Democrats have become more vocal in expressing disappointment with the Obama administration’s handling of veterans issues. In Michigan, Rep. Gary Peters, who is running for the state’s open U.S. Senate seat, wrote in a letter to Shinseki on Monday that ensuring that veterans are receiving proper medical care is “the most pressing and immediate issue.”

“We’ve got to get to the point where we don’t need a congressional or senatorial office to help you get into the system,” Peters said in an interview. “It’s got to work seamlessly for our veterans.”

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Scott Clement and Peyton M. Craighill contributed to this report.

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