WASHINGTON — After saying virtually nothing about the Veterans Administration scandal since it broke five weeks ago, except that he learned about it on the news, a noticeably unemotional President Obama suggested wait times didn't appear to cause the deaths at VA facilities.
The president said the wait times generally were for people with chronic conditions, not necessarily those in immediate need of emergency services.
He did not acknowledge that people with chronic conditions may have died from neglect.
Instead, Obama cited the VA's inspector general, or IG, who is currently compiling a report, as indicating he didn't see a link between the wait times and the deaths.
The president's exact words:
"I think it is important to recognize that the wait times generally – what the IG indicated so far, at least, is the wait times were folks who may have had chronic conditions, were seeking their next appointment, but may have already received service.
"It was not necessarily a situation where they were calling for emergency services. And the IG indicated that he did not see a link between the wait and them actually dying."
Obama also suggested the situation was actually better than before, saying he has seen improvements in the backlogs.
"We launched an all-out war on the disability claims backlog. And in just the past year alone, we've slashed that backlog by half," claimed the president.
It was comments such as those that have critics like Rush Limbaugh claiming the VA scandal is a preview of the emergence of "death panels" when health care is rationed under Obamacare.
But reporters didn't get much of a chance to question Obama's claims, as the president took only two questions on the scandal that has even Democratic lawmakers outraged.
The president softly said he knew people were angry, he sympathized with that, but he had to let investigators do their job. Obama promised, "I assure you if there is misconduct, it will be punished."
He didn't say anyone would be fired, and there were no indications of a plan for dealing with the scandal where scores of veterans allegedly died at VA facilities because of long wait times that administrators have covered up.
Obama said anyone falsifying records would be "held accountable."
The president did say responsibility rested with him, but he declined to provide any steps to fix the situation until investigators finish their report.
He said, until then, he didn't know how widespread the problem was, whether it was big or just "episodic," despite daily revelations in the media about a mushrooming catastrophe.
"We know wait times have been a problem for decades," said the president, and that "some facilities do better than others."
But, again, he said he wanted to see the report before saying more.
He did say veterans shouldn't be expected to wait anymore, but then he offered no suggestions or ideas on how to do that.
Obama spoke at the White House after meeting with VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and Rob Nabor, the White House Deputy chief of staff who has been tasked with overseeing the scandal for Obama.
The story became a national sensation on April 14, when CNN reported that at least 40 U.S. veterans died waiting for appointments at the Phoenix VA, many of whom were placed on a secret waiting list.
However, Obama was warned about severe problems at the VA repeatedly over the years, even before he became president.
The Washington Times reported Monday that the Obama administration received notice more than five years ago that VA medical facilities were reporting inaccurate waiting times and experiencing scheduling failures that threatened to deny veterans timely health care.
VA officials reportedly warned the Obama-Biden transition team in the weeks after the 2008 presidential election that the wait times the facilities were reporting were not trustworthy.
In fact, WND discovered that Obama was briefed on problems at the VA as far back as 2005, when he was a senator and a member of the Veterans Affairs committee.
More recently, House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., wrote a letter to Obama on May 21, 2013, that began:
"Dear Mr. President: I am writing to bring to your attention an alarming pattern of serious and significant patient care issues at the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Centers (VAMCs) across the country. Recent events at the Atlanta, Georgia, VAMC provide a perfect illustration of the management failures, deceptions, and lack of accountability permeating VA’s healthcare system … I believe your direct involvement and leadership is required."
And, WND reported last week that Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., reminded Shinseki that Congress had been informed two years ago that gaming the system at the VA was so widespread, employees would look to get around regulations as soon as the rules were implemented.
Shinseki testified before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee last week that he was not aware of problems similar to those in Phoenix at other VA facilities, except in isolated cases.
But emboldened whistleblowers have now identified at least 20 VA facilities around the country experiencing similar problems.
The scandal could impact upcoming elections, because if the VA problems offer a preview of government-run health insurance, then Republicans may be rapidly acquiring explosive new ammunition in their efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare.
Other points made by Obama:
- Money is not the problem. He claimed, "We've made historic investments in our veterans. We've boosted VA funding to record levels."
- "Some facilities do better than others" and wait times have been a problem "for decades." He did not specify whether wait times have been causing people to die for decades.
- Using a sports metaphor to describe his approach to the problem, he said, "I want to know what's working, I want to know what is not working, and I want specific recommendations on how VA can up their game."
- The president warned against using the scandal for political advantage, even though Democrats are also criticizing his administration's lackluster response. The president warned against letting vets become "become another political football."
- The problem is bringing the government-run VA health-care system "into the 21st century, which is not an easy task."
- The most severe punishment he has delivered so far is paid leave. "Some individuals (VA employees) have already been put on administrative leave," the president said.
While leaving the podium, the president did not reply when a reporter asked if he expected people to be fired.
Follow Garth Kant on Twitter @DCgarth