WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama denounced alleged misconduct at the Department of Veterans Affairs as "disgraceful" Wednesday and vowed to punish those responsible.
But the president's first public remarks on the VA controversy in three weeks failed to quell growing fury among veterans groups and lawmakers, who demanded that Obama clean house at the troubled agency— starting at the top with VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.
Congress moved to keep up the pressure on the administration, with the House easily approving a measure Wednesday evening that would give the VA secretary more authority to fire or demote the 450 senior career employees who work as hospital directors or executives in the agency's 21 regions. The vote was 390 to 33.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Pensacola, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, sponsored the measure. The White House said it supported the goal of seeking greater accountability at the VA but had unspecified concerns about the legislation.
The growing furor surrounding the VA focuses on allegations of treatment delays and preventable deaths at VA hospitals. The department's Office of Inspector General says 26 facilities are being investigated nationwide, including a Phoenix hospital facing allegations that 40 people died while waiting for treatment and that staff kept a secret list of patients in order to hide delays in care.
The allegations have raised fresh concerns about the administration's management of a department that has been struggling to keep up with the influx of new veterans returning home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama's comments Wednesday signaled a greater urgency by the White House to keep the matter from spiraling into a deeper political problem in a midterm election year.
The president's remarks were "a tremendous disappointment" and gave veterans no reason to hope for change at the VA, said Paul Rieckhoff, the head of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a nonprofit based in Washington.
"The public trust with the VA and Secretary Shinseki is broken," Rieckhoff said in a statement.
Daniel M. Dellinger, the national commander of the American Legion, said the president's decision not to fire Shinseki was "an unfortunate one."
"The VA has been aware for some time that inappropriate scheduling procedures are widespread among its medical facilities," he said in a statement. "Yet Secretary Shinseki has taken no initiative in correcting the problem. Veterans continue to die waiting for their health care, senior VA executives continue to get their bonuses, and only after all of this is the secretary now pledging to fix what's wrong."
Obama warned that anyone found to have falsified records in order to cover up long wait times for appointments at VA hospitals will be held accountable.
"I will not stand for it, not as commander in chief but also not as an American. None of us should," the president said after meeting with Shinseki at the White House. "So if these allegations prove to be true, it is dishonorable, it is disgraceful, and I will not tolerate it — period."
Obama said he still trusts Shinseki and added that responsibility ultimately rests with him as commander in chief.
"Nobody cares more about our veterans," Obama said of Shinseki. He added, "We are going to work with him to solve the problem."
Asked by reporters whether Shinseki had offered to resign, Obama hinted that the secretary might do so if progress isn't made quickly.
"I know that (Shinseki's) attitude is if he does not think he can do a good job on this and if he thinks he has let our veterans down, then I'm sure that he is not going to be interested in continuing to serve," the president said.
Obama met with Shinseki and Rob Nabors, the president's deputy chief of staff, on Wednesday morning. Obama has asked Nabors to help Shinseki review VA policies nationwide.
Obama said he is awaiting preliminary findings from Shinseki next week and a comprehensive report from Nabors next month before taking any punitive action.
Information from the McClatchy Washington Bureau and the Associated Press was used in this report.