Wait Times Scandal At VA Moves To Front Burner

President Obama promised accountability for problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs after meeting with Secretary Eric Shinseki. The secretary has been on the hot seat since allegations surfaced last month about a possible cover-up of long wait times at a Phoenix VA medical center.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. A simmering scandal over wait times at VA hospitals moved to the front burner at the White House today. President Obama met with the embattled Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki. The president has also dispatched a top lieutenant to investigate the problem and make recommendations on how to improve veterans' health care. NPR's Scott Horsley reports that both Obama and Shinseki have come under criticism that they were too passive and allowed the problem to fester.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: With more than two dozen VA hospitals and clinics now under investigation for allegedly keeping veterans on long waiting lists, the White House was eager to show a president taking charge. Obama summoned the VA secretary to the Oval Office this morning, then stepped in front of the TV cameras to deliver a promise to the nation's veterans.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We are going to fix whatever is wrong. And so long as I have the privilege of serving as commander in chief, I'm going to keep on fighting to deliver the care and the benefits and the opportunities that your families deserve.

HORSLEY: This was the first time in weeks the president had spoken publicly about the VA. The story's been percolating since last month, when allegations surfaced in Phoenix that VA workers tried to cover up long wait times by keeping patients on a secret list.

OBAMA: If these allegations prove to be true, it is dishonorable, it is disgraceful, and I will not tolerate it, period.

HORSLEY: Obama says he welcomes congressional oversight of the VA but urged lawmakers not to use the department's problems to score political points.

OBAMA: It is important that our veterans don't become another political football.

HORSLEY: But Republicans see an opportunity to gain yardage by attacking the VA, which is, after all, a big government health care program, as well as the president's hands-off management style. Here's Florida Congressman Jeff Miller.

REPRESENTATIVE JEFF MILLER: The president, for three weeks, has said nothing until today. He still said nothing today. The secretary has not been involved. We have to take care of the veterans that we have fighting for our freedom every single day.

HORSLEY: This fits a consistent Republican critique that Obama is out of touch with his own bureaucracy. White House spokesman Jay Carney inadvertently fed that image this week when he said the president had learned of the VA's problems from a news report. Carney later clarified that he meant only the allegation of phony recordkeeping in Phoenix. Today, Obama stressed there's nothing new about long wait times at the VA.

OBAMA: It's been a problem for decades and it's been compounded by more than a decade of war. That's why when I came into office, I said we would systematically work to fix these problems and we have been working really hard to address them.

HORSLEY: The president has successfully pushed to increase the VA's budget. But demand on the system has gone up even faster, as new veterans return from Iraq and Afghanistan, and older veterans face the health problems of advancing age. The VA says over the last three years, primary care visits jumped 50 percent, while the number of primary care doctors rose just 9 percent. Obama suggests that makes it harder for the VA to meet its target of scheduling appointments within 14 days, and may have created perverse pressure on workers to cover the problems up.

OBAMA: If you can't get wait times down to 14 days right now, I want you to let the folks up the chain know so that we can solve the problem.

HORSLEY: Obama has tasked his Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors to explore that bigger picture and report back next month. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House.

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