WASHINGTON — The White House announced Tuesday that it is dispatching one of President Barack Obama's top aides to investigate deaths allegedly connected to a Department of Veterans Affairs medical center in Phoenix, part of the administration's efforts to contain growing outrage over delays in treatment and rigged record-keeping at veterans hospitals.
Rob Nabors, a White House deputy chief of staff, has been assigned to assist top VA officials in exploring allegations of wrongdoing by staffers at the Phoenix facility and elsewhere. He will be meeting with Arizona hospital officials Thursday after meeting Wednesday with representatives from several veterans organizations in Washington, according to the White House.
Republicans have seized on the recent VA allegations as potential fodder for this fall's midterm elections, and a few GOP senators have called for the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki. Obama "has confidence" in Shinseki, according to White House press secretary Jay Carney, who added that administration officials 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 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."
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has said that firing Shinseki would only hamper the administration's ability to address "systemic" issues at the department. But House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said Tuesday morning that he was disturbed by reports suggesting that Obama first learned of the allegations against the VA through news reports.
"It is time for our president to come forward and take responsibility for this and do the right thing by these veterans and begin to show that he actually cares about getting it straight," Cantor told reporters.
Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill. — an Iraq war veteran, double-amputee and former VA assistant secretary — said in an interview late 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."
Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Jerry Moran, R-Kan., have called for Shinseki's resignation, and the issue has become a hot topic in some midterm races.
Today, 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 yearlong committee investigation that found at least 20 "preventable veteran deaths" in the VA system. The probe also found 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.