As the investigation into complaints that VA facilities have concealed long waits for healthcare widened Wednesday, President Obama vowed he would not tolerate misconduct at the Department of Veterans Affairs and stood by the agency's chief — for now.
"Any misconduct, whether it's allegations of VA staff covering up long wait times or cooking the books — I will not stand for it, not as commander in chief, but also not as an American," Obama said after meeting with embattled VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki. "I know that people are angry and want swift reckoning. I sympathize with that. But we have to let the investigators do their job and get to the bottom of what happened."
Obama's public comments, his first since last month, came as the VA inspector general's investigation expanded to include 26 sites. The office, which previously identified VA facilities in Phoenix, San Antonio and Fort Collins, Colo., as the subject of its review, declined to identify the new locations. Richard J. Griffin, the VA's acting inspector general, has said he expects to have the findings of his investigation ready in August.
The president said Shinseki would complete a preliminary report next week on the full scope of the problems and White House Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors would conduct a broader review of veterans healthcare to be delivered next month. Nabors met Tuesday with veterans' groups and traveled Wednesday to the VA hospital in Phoenix, which has been accused of maintaining secret waiting lists to hide delays in treating veterans.
Since the revelations, Republicans and at least two Democrats have called for Shinseki's resignation. Complaints that VA employees maintained fraudulent waiting lists have quickly become an election-year issue, with lawmakers seeking to demonstrate their commitment to addressing the problems.
The House, in a 390-33 vote, easily passed legislation Wednesday that would make it easier for the secretary of Veterans Affairs to fire or demote senior employees. In the Senate, a bill was introduced to prohibit the payment of bonuses to employees at the Veterans Health Administration through Sept. 30, 2015.
The effect was a rapid rise in pressure on a White House that has battled allegations of incompetence and mismanagement since the disastrous October rollout of HealthCare.gov, the federal Web portal to sign up for insurance under the Affordable Care Act. As Obama did when Republicans demanded that Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius resign, the president said he would not act swiftly.
He offered a careful defense of his VA secretary as a dedicated, disabled veteran, but left himself room to shift course. "Nobody cares more about our veterans than Ric Shinseki," Obama said.
But on key issues facing the agency — veteran homelessness, the GI Bill for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, reducing the enormous backlog for services — Obama praised Shinseki's effort, not his results.
"He has put his heart and soul into this thing, and he has taken it very seriously," he said. "If he does not think he can do a good job on this and if he thinks he's let our veterans down, then I'm sure that he is not going to be interested in continuing to serve."
Reaction from veterans groups was mixed.
William A. Thien, commander in chief of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said Obama said "the right words." And Garry Augustine, executive director of the Disabled American Veterans' Washington office, said he was encouraged to hear Obama commit to looking at whether the VA has adequate resources and to reducing veterans' waits for medical appointments.
But American Legion National Commander Daniel M. Dellinger called the president's decision to keep Shinseki on the job "unfortunate."
"The VA has been aware for some time that inappropriate scheduling procedures are widespread among its medical facilities," he said. "Veterans continue to die waiting for their healthcare."
White House officials sought to put the crisis in context — noting that deeply entrenched problems at the VA predate the Obama administration. Aging veterans from the Vietnam War, recent ones from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and expanded eligibility for services have created a surging demand that the system was not designed to handle.
Obama argued that his administration had been able to "chip away" at the problems. The backlog of claims that have been awaiting a decision for 125 days has dropped to 293,000 from a peak of 611,000 in March 2013.
The president's measured expectations were a notable shift from the heated outrage Obama expressed at the treatment of veterans under the George W. Bush administration. And just as Obama did as a candidate in 2008, his critics used the issue as an example of failed leadership throughout the administration.
"Veterans are tired of waiting for the next report, the next investigation, the next media breaking news alert," said Sen. Richard M. Burr of North Carolina, the top Republican on the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee.
On Wednesday, two House Democrats also called on Shinseki to resign.
Rep. John Barrow (D-Ga.), always a top Republican target in elections, said in a statement that "it's time to give someone else an opportunity to lead the agency and begin the rebuilding process."
During debate on the bill that would give the VA secretary new authority to fire senior employees, Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) said, "The first person we need to fire is the secretary of Veterans Affairs."
The VA Management Accountability Act was introduced before the recent controversy, but House GOP leaders accelerated its consideration.
"President Obama is known for talking about accountability without ever holding anyone accountable," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said. "While the president took little action this morning, the House will act today."
The White House has said only that it would study the bill, while the Democratic-controlled Senate has not indicated whether it would take it up.