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Obama on VA allegations: ‘I will not stand for it’

Posted at 11:21 AM, May 21, 2014

(CNN) -- He promised accountability and swift action, but he's not firing Veteran Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki - yet.

President Barack Obama sought to tamp down increasing calls for firm action on a growing controversy involving fraudulent record-keeping that covered up excessive and sometimes deadly waiting times for veterans at some VA facilities.

In a statement to reporters after meeting with Shinseki, Obama asked for more time to review what is going on, declaring that any proven misconduct will face punishment.

"If these allegations prove to be true, it is dishonorable, it is disgraceful, and I will not tolerate it, period," he said in his first public comments in weeks on the issue first reported by CNN last month.

Noting the public wants a "swift reckoning" on the VA issue, Obama instead defended the record of his administration and Shinseki -- a retired Army general who has served as Veteran Affairs secretary throughout Obama's presidency.

Shinseki is committed to solving the department's problems, the President said, adding it has been made clear to him that there will be accountability throughout the VA system.

CNN reported last month that in Phoenix, the department used fraudulent record-keeping -- including secret lists -- that covered up excessive waiting periods for veterans, with some dying in the process. White House spokesman Jay Carney stepped around questions Tuesday about when Obama learned of the depth of the Department of Veterans Affairs problems.

In a new development on Wednesday, CNN learned that the Phoenix VA Director Sharon Helman -- who was placed on administrative leave because of the reported problems -- received a bonus of $8,495 in April, which was in addition to the 2013 bonus she received, according to the House Committee on Veteran's Affairs.

Meanwhile, the number of VA facilities under investigation has expanded to 26, the agency's Office of Inspector General said Tuesday. Last week, the inspector general told a Senate committee that 10 facilities were being investigated.

Obama's deputy chief of staff, Rob Nabors, will head to Phoenix on Wednesday night to interview the VA office's interim director and visit the facility. Nabors is aiding Shinseki with a review of the allegations, and Obama said he expects a report from them next week.

In addition, Nabors is conducting a broader review of overall VA health care administration, with a deadline to report back to Obama in a month, the President said.

For six months, CNN has been reporting on delays in medical appointments for veterans across the country, with some dying or suffering harm while waiting for appointments and care. The most disturbing and striking problems emerged in Arizona last month, with sources revealing to CNN details of a secret waiting list. According to the sources, at least 40 American veterans died in Phoenix while waiting for care at the VA there.

An internal VA memo from 2010, first disclosed at a congressional hearing last week, showed officials warned of "inappropriate scheduling practices" to cover up excessive waits for veterans four years ago.

The memo by William Schoenhard, who was a VA deputy undersecretary, referred to a growing practice of "gaming strategies" that he said would not be tolerated. However, the CNN investigation shows such practices have continued.

One of CNN's sources, Dr. Samuel Foote, a retired VA hospital physician, said Wednesday that VA managers worried about being able to report they were meeting deadlines for providing care to veterans, rather than getting accurate information on what was happening.

If the numbers provided to superiors looked good, then the VA looked good, Foote explained, adding, "There's really no incentive for the upper management to get accurate numbers."

He told CNN: "I think the VA needs to get out of its delay and deny mode and start admitting that there really is a problem, and that's generally the first step in solving a problem is admitting you have one."

In response to CNN's reporting, the VA has acknowledged 23 deaths across the country due to excessive waits by veterans for care, and the VA inspector general launched an independent investigation of the Phoenix allegations and other VA problems in addition to the internal review by Shinseki and Nabors.

At a Senate hearing last week, the inspector general said his investigation so far found a possible 17 deaths of veterans waiting for care in Phoenix but added there was no evidence that the excessive waiting caused the deaths.

Internal memo

On Monday, Carney acknowledged the White House learned of the situation at the Phoenix VA from CNN reports in April.

Asked Tuesday about the Schoenhard memo, Carney refused to answer and instead referred reporters to the VA because it was an internal VA document.

At the same time, Carney said Obama had long been aware of problems at the VA and sought to address them since taking office, adding, "This is not a new issue to the President."

In 2007, Obama, then a senator from Illinois, vowed to tackle the issue of insufficient care for veterans at a campaign event during his first run for the presidency.

"When a veteran is denied care, we are all dishonored," Obama said in the August 2007 speech, adding: "It's not enough to lay a wreath on Memorial Day, or to pay tribute to our veterans in speeches."

So far, the President has resisted calls by Republicans to fire Shinseki.

Whistleblowers from other VA hospitals across the country have stepped forward to describe similar schemes by officials to hide the extended waits.

Florida problems

Meanwhile, an audit team sent to the Malcom Randall VA Medical Center in Gainesville, Florida, discovered a list of patients needing follow-up appointments that was kept on paper instead of in the VA's electronic computer system.

As a result, three members of the Gainesville VA's supervisory staff have been placed on paid leave, pending the outcome of the inspector general's investigation, VA Sunshine Healthcare Network spokeswoman Mary Kay Hollingsworth said this week.

The secret waiting list in Phoenix was part of an elaborate scheme designed by VA managers there who were trying to hide that 1,400 to 1,600 sick veterans were forced to wait months to see a doctor, according to a recently retired top VA doctor and several high-level sources who spoke exclusively to CNN.

Phoenix VA officials denied any knowledge of a secret list, and said they never ordered any staff to hide waiting times. They acknowledged some veterans may have died waiting for care there, but they said they did not have knowledge about why those veterans might have died.

CNN has tried repeatedly to interview Shinseki, but the requests have been denied.

VA response 'unacceptable'

On Tuesday, House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller complained of a "very weak" and "unacceptable" response by the VA to a subpoena from his panel over the alleged health care delays.

The Florida Republican told CNN that if the VA doesn't provide more details, the committee could move to hold the embattled agency in contempt.

The top Democrat on the House panel, Rep. Michael Michaud of Maine, told reporters that both sides were frustrated with the response so far.

"We do not want to give them more time if they don't need that time -- if this is in fact is a delay," Michaud said. "There has been a credibility problem within the VA and that's one of the reason why we're concerned."

The VA said in a statement that it had begun to turn over documents and would continue to do so on a rolling basis.