President Barack Obama finally displayed an appropriate sense of outrage and urgency Wednesday in addressing the scandal over patient care at the Department of Veterans Affairs. At a rare, midday briefing from the White House, the president ordered a report by next week on whether the VA falsified records at some facilities to hide the long wait times for patients to see a doctor. And he ordered a second review by next month examining whether the agency is meeting its broader obligations to deliver the fuller range of veterans' benefits. It took the administration too long to respond seriously to the allegations, but the process and the deadlines should be enough to focus Congress on solutions, not election-year grandstanding.
Obama's appearance marked the first time the president spoke publicly to mounting reports that dozens of veterans may have died while awaiting care at VA facilities. The agency's inspector general and Congress are examining allegations that officials in Phoenix and at other VA facilities may have kept secret waiting lists or destroyed records to conceal the long wait times for appointments at VA hospitals. Investigators have not yet tied any deaths to delays in accessing care.
The president assumed a new level of responsibility for the crisis, and he opened a door to sweeping leadership changes at the department, whose secretary, Eric Shinseki, has infuriated some members of Congress and veterans groups with his plodding response. The president said he would view it as "dishonorable" and "disgraceful" if the charges proved true; "I will not tolerate it, period," he said. This was a line in the sand the president was right to make. And he was correct to note that the VA's intransigent culture had been a problem for decades.
The agency's Office of Inspector General said this week it was examining 26 facilities nationwide — nearly three times the number from last week. Also Wednesday, Obama dispatched his deputy chief of staff to the Phoenix VA medical center as part of a wide-ranging investigation into the agency's management. The White House needs to keep the heat on this bureaucracy and establish in a public way the problems that are systemic to VA operations and its closed working culture.
Congress, though, is acting prematurely by pursuing legislation to make it easier for the executive branch to fire VA administrators. While some senior officials may need to go, there will be time to clean house after the ongoing investigations establish what went wrong, who knew about it and how veterans and the taxpaying public paid the price. The task now is not to score political points or add to the chaos of an overburdened system, but to get the facts and repair the safety net for veterans and their families. The comprehensive review of VA operations expected next month presents an appropriate opportunity for addressing statutory changes to hiring and management. The focus now should be on uncovering and ending deceitful practices and backlogs that immediately threaten patient safety.