WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama said Friday he plans to have a “serious conversation” with Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki about whether he can stay in his job as the agency head apologized publicly for systemic problems plaguing the veterans’ health care system.
Obama was meeting Friday morning with the retired four-star general just two days after a scathing internal report found broad and deep-seated problems in the sprawling health care system, which provides medical care to about 6.5 million veterans annually. The report prompted loud calls for Shinseki’s resignation from congressional Republicans and Democrats.
In a speech Friday morning, Shinseki said the problems outlined in the report were “totally unacceptable” and a “breach of trust” that he found irresponsible and indefensible. He announced he would take a series of steps to respond, including ousting senior officials at the troubled Phoenix health care facility, the initial focus of the investigation.
He concurred with the report’s conclusion that the problems extended throughout the VA’s 1,700 health care facilities nationwide, and said that “I was too trusting of some” in the VA system.
The VA has a goal of trying to give patients an appointment within 14 days of when they first seek care. Treatment delays – and irregularities in recording patient waiting times – have been documented in numerous reports from government and outside organizations for years and have been well-known to VA officials, member of Congress and veteran service organizations.
But the controversy now swirling around the VA stems from allegations that employees were keeping a secret waiting list at the Phoenix hospital – and that up to 40 patients may have died while awaiting care. A preliminary VA inspector general probe into the allegations found systemic falsification of appointment records at Phoenix and other locations but has not made a determination on whether any deaths are related to the delays.
The agency has been struggling to keep up with a huge demand for its services – some 9 million enrolled now compared to 8 million in 2008. The influx comes from returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, aging Vietnam War vets who now have more health problems, a move by Congress to expand the number of those eligible for care and the migration of veterans to the VA during the last recession after they lost their jobs or switched to the VA when their private insurance became more expensive.
Shinseki said the last several weeks have been “challenging” but that his agency takes caring for veterans seriously.
“I can’t explain the lack of integrity,” he told a homeless veterans group. “I will not defend it, because it is not defensible.” The beleaguered Cabinet official received a standing ovation and loud applause.
Obama has been under pressure to fire Shinseki, with an increasing number of Republicans and politically vulnerable Democrats pressing for new leadership at the VA.
“I’ll have a serious conversation with him about whether he thinks he is prepared and has the capacity to take on the job of fixing it. I don’t want any veteran to not be getting the kind of services they deserve,” the president in an interview airing Friday on the television talk show “Live! With Kelly and Michael.”
A clip from the interview was aired Friday on ABC’s Good Morning America.
An inspector general’s report found that about 1,700 veterans in need of care were “at risk of being lost or forgotten” after being kept off an official waiting list.
The report confirmed earlier allegations of excessive waiting times for care in Phoenix, with an average 115-day wait for a first appointment for those on the waiting list – nearly five times as long as the 24-day average the hospital had reported.
“This situation can be fixed,” Shinseki told an audience of several hundred people from around the nation who have been working with the VA on helping homeless veterans. “Leadership and integrity problems can and must be fixed – and now.”
He said the government would not give any performance bonuses this year, would use all authorities it has against those “who instigated or tolerated” the falsification of wait time records and that performance on achieving wait time targets will no longer be considered in employee job reviews. He also asked Congress to support a bill by Rep. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., which would give the department more authority to remove senior government employees who are in leadership positions.
The House has passed a similar bill that would give the VA more ability to fire up to 450 senior executives at the agency.
Those attending Shinseki’s speech in a downtown Washington hotel were overwhelmingly friendly, supportive because of his work in sharply decreasing homelessness among veterans. Shinseki at one point noted that the number of homeless veterans has fallen by nearly 25 percent since 2013. The audience gave him a long, standing ovation, whistling and hooting, when he entered the room and again before and after he spoke.
“He has made a difference. I’m living it,” said James Wheatley, a 20-year veteran of the Army who now works at mental health facility that helps veterans in Indianapolis, In.
“He’s a good man,” said Steven Nelson, a veteran who works at an employment center in Tuscon, Arizona. “When I go to the VA (for health care), I’m well taken care of and everybody I know is.”
Asked if Shinseki can survive and keep his job, Ana Aria, director of a homeless veterans center in Puerto Rico, said, “I hope so.”
Obama noted in his taped interview that the VA has had backlog problems for a long time and argued that veterans are satisfied with the system once they get in – but getting in is a problem.
Associated Press Writer Donna Cassata contributed to this story.