Return to Transcripts main page


Obama Addresses VA Scandal; Political Ramifications of the VA Controversy

Aired May 21, 2014 - 11:00   ET


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: So when I hear allegations of misconduct, any misconduct, whether it's allegations of V.A. 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. None of us should.

So, if these allegations prove to be true, it is dishonorable, it is disgraceful, and I will not tolerate it, period.

Here's what I discussed with Secretary Shinseki this morning: First, anybody found to have manipulated or falsified records at V.A. facilities has to be held accountable. The inspector general at the V.A. has launched investigations into the Phoenix V.A. and other facilities, and some individuals have already been put on administrative leave.

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. Our veterans deserve to know the facts. Their families deserve to know the facts. Once we know the facts, I assure you, if there is misconduct, it will be punished.

Second, I want to know the full scope of this problem, and that's why I ordered Secretary Shinseki to investigate. Today, he updated me on his review, which is looking not just at the Phoenix facility, but also V.A. facilities across the nation. And I expect preliminary results from that review next week.

Third, I've directed Rob Nabors to conduct a broader review of the Veterans Health Administration, the part of the V.A. that delivers health care to our veterans. And Rob's going to Phoenix today.

Keep in mind though, even if we had not heard reports out of this Phoenix facility or other facilities, we all know that it often takes too long for veterans to get the care that they need. That's not a new development. It's been a problem for decades, and it's been compounded by more than a decade of war.

That's why when I came into office, I said we would systematically work to fix these problems, and we have been working really hard to address them.

My attitude is, the folks who've been fighting on the battlefield, they should not have to fight a bureaucracy at home to get the care that they've earned.

So the presumption has always been we've got to do better. And Rob's review will be a comprehensive look at the Veterans Health Administration approach currently to access to care. I want to know what's working, I want to know what is not working, and I want specific recommendations on how V.A. can up their game. And I expect that full report from Rob next month.

Number four, I said that I expect everyone involved to work with Congress, which has an important oversight role to play. And I welcome Congress as a partner in our efforts, not just to address the current controversies, but to make sure we're doing right by our veterans across the board.

I served on the Veterans Affairs Committee when I was in the Senate, and it was one of the proudest piece of business that I did in the legislature. And I know the folks over there care deeply about our veterans.

It is important that our veterans don't become another political football, especially when so many of them are receiving care right now.

This is an area where Democrats and Republicans should always be working together.

Which brings me to my final point, even as we get to the bottom of what happened at Phoenix and other facilities, all of us that are here in Washington or all across the country have to stay focused on the larger mission, which is upholding our sacred trust to all of our veterans, bringing the V.A. system into the 21st century, which is not an easy task.

We have made progress over the last five years. We've made historic investments in our veterans. We've boosted V.A. funding to record levels. And we created consistency through advanced appropriations so that veterans' organizations knew their money would be there regardless of political wrangling in Washington.

We made V.A. benefits available to more than 2 million veterans who did not have it before, delivering disability pay to more Vietnam vets exposed to Agent Orange; making it easier for veterans with post- traumatic stress and mental health issues and traumatic brain injury to get treatment; and improving care for women veterans.

Because of these steps and the influx of new veterans requiring services added in many cases to wait times, we launched an all-out war on the disability claims backlog. And in just the past year alone, we've slashed that backlog by half. Of course, we're not going to let up because it's still too high. We're going to keep at it until we eliminate the backlog once and for all.

Meanwhile, we're also reducing homelessness among our veterans. We're helping veterans and their families, more than a million so far, pursue their education under the post-9/11 G.I. Bill. We're stepping up our efforts to help our newest veterans get the skills and training to find jobs when they come home. And along with Michelle and Jill Biden and Joining Forces, we've helped hundreds of thousands of veterans find a job. More veterans are finding work and veterans' unemployment, although still way too high, is coming down.

The point is, caring for our veterans is not an issue that popped up in recent weeks. Some of the problems with respect to how veterans are able to access the benefits that they've earned, that's not a new issue. That's an issue that I was working on when I was running for the United States Senate. Taking care of our veterans and their families has been one of the causes of my presidency and it is something that all of us have to be involved with and have to be paying attention to. We ended the war in Iraq, and as our war in Afghanistan ends and as our newest veterans are coming home, the demands on the V.A. are going to grow. So, we're going to have redouble our efforts to get it right as a nation.

And we have to be honest that there are and will continue to be areas where we've got to do a lot better. So, today I want every veteran to know, we are going to fix whatever is wrong, and so long as I have the privilege of serving as commander in chief, I am going to keep on fighting to deliver the care and the benefits and the opportunities that your families deserve now and for decades to come. And that is a commitment to which I feel a sacred duty to maintain.

So, with that, I'm going to take two questions. I'm going to take Jim Kune (ph) and Dave P (ph), first of all.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President.

As you said, this is a cause of your presidency. You ran on this issue. You mentioned it. Why was it allowed to get to this stage, where you actually had potentially 40 veterans who -- who died while waiting for treatment? That's an extreme circumstance. Why did it led -- why could it led to that?

OBAMA: Well, we had to find out first of all what exactly happened. And I don't want to get ahead of the I.G. report or the other investigations that are being done. And I think it is important to recognize that the wait times generally, what the I.G. indicated so far, at least, is the wait times were for folks who may have had chronic conditions, who are seeking their next appointment, but may have already received service, so it was not necessarily a situation where they are calling for emergency services.

And the I.G. indicated that he did not see a link between the wait and them actually dying.

That does not excuse the fact that the wait times in general are too long in some facilities. And so, what we have to do is find out what exactly happened; we have to find out how can we realistically cut some of these wait times.

There has been a large influx of new veterans coming in. We've got a population of veterans that is also aging, as part of the baby boom population. And we've got to make sure that the scheduling system, the access to the system, that all of those things are in sync. And there are parts of the V.A. health care system that have performed well. And what we've seen is, for example, satisfaction rates in many facilities and with respect to many providers has been high.

But what you -- what we're seeing is that in terms of how folks get scheduled, how they get in the system, there's still too many problems.

I'm gonna get a complete report from it. It is not as a consequence of people not caring about the problem, but there are 85 million appointments scheduled among veterans during the course of the year. That's a lot of appointments, and that means that we've got to have a system that is built in order to be able to take those folks in in a smooth fashion, that they know what to expect, that it's reliable.

And it means that the V.A.'s got to set standards that it can meet. And if it can't meet them right now, then it's going to have to set realistic goals about how they improve the system overall.

QUESTION: Does that responsibility ultimately rest with General Shinseki?

OBAMA: You know, the responsibility for things always rests ultimately with me as the president and commander in chief. Ric Shinseki has been a great soldier. He himself is a disabled veteran. And nobody cares more about our veterans than Ric Shinseki.

So, you know, if you ask me, you know, how do I think Ric Shinseki has performed overall, I would say that on homelessness, on 9/11 G.I. Bill, on working with us to reduce the backlog, across the board he has put his heart and soul into this thing and he has taken it very seriously.

But I have said to Ric and I said it to him today, I want to see, you know, what the results of these reports are, and there is going to be accountability. And I'm going to expect even before the reports are done that we are seeing significant improvement in terms of how the admissions process takes place in all of our V.A. health care facilities.

So, I know he cares about it deeply. And, you know, he has been a great public servant and a great warrior on behalf of the United States of America. We're going to work with him to solve the problem. But I am going to make sure that there is accountability throughout the system after I get the full report.

Steve Holland from Reuters.

QUESTION: Thank you, sir.

Has Secretary Shinseki offered to resign? And if he's not to blame, then who is? And were you caught by surprise by these allegations?

OBAMA: You know, Ric Shinseki I think serves this country because he cares deeply about veterans and he cares deeply about the mission. And I know that Ric's attitude is 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. At this stage, Ric is committed to solving the problem and working with us to do it. And I am going to do everything in my power using the resources of the White House to help that process of getting to the bottom of what happened and fixing it.

But, I'm also going to be waiting to see what the results of all this review process yields. I don't yet know how systemic this is. I don't yet know are there a lot of other facilities that have been cooking the books or is this just an episodic problem? We know that you know, essentially the wait times have been a problem for decades in all kinds of circumstances with respect to the V.A. getting benefits, getting health care, et cetera. Some facilities do better than others.

A couple of years ago, the Veterans Affairs set a goal of 14 days for wait times. What's not yet clear to me is whether enough tools were given to make sure that those goals were actually met, and I won't know until the full report is put forward as to whether there was enough management follow-up to ensure that those folks on the front lines who were doing scheduling had the capacity to meet those goals, if they were being evaluated for meeting goals that were unrealistic and they couldn't meet because either there weren't enough doctors or the systems weren't in place or what have you.

We need to find out who was responsible for, you know, setting up those guidelines, so there are going to be a lot of questions that we have to answer.

In the meantime, what I'd said to Ric today is let's not wait for the report retrospectively to reach out immediately to veterans who are currently waiting for appointments, to make sure that they are getting better service. That's something that we can initiate right now. We don't have to wait to find out if there was misconduct to dig in and make sure that we're upping our game in all of our various facilities.

You know, I do think it is important, not just with respect to Ric Shinseki, but with respect to the V.A. generally, to say that every single day, there are people working in the V.A. who do outstanding work and put everything they've got into making sure that our veterans get the care, benefits, and services that they need.

And so I do want to close by sending a message out there that there are millions of veterans who are getting really good service from the V.A., who are getting really good treatment from the V.A. I know, because I get letters from veterans, sometimes, asking me to write letters of commendation or praise to a doctor or a nurse or a facility that couldn't have given them better treatment.

And so this is a big system with a lot of really good people in it who care about our veterans deeply. We have seen the improvements on a whole range of issues, like homelessness, like starting to clear the backlog up, like making sure that folks who previously weren't even eligible for disability because it was a mental health issue or because it was an Agent Orange issue, are finally able to get those services. I don't want us to lose sight of the fact that there are a lot folks in the V.A. who are doing a really good job and working really hard at it.

That does not, on the other hand, excuse the possibility that, number one, we weren't just -- we were not doing a good enough job in terms of providing access to folks who need an appointment for chronic conditions.

Number two, it never excuses the possibility that somebody was trying to manipulate the data in order to look better or make their facility look better. It is critical to make sure that we have good information in order to make good decisions. I want people on the front lines if there's a problem to tell me or tell Ric Shinseki or tell whoever's their superior that this is a problem. Don't cover up a problem. Do not pretend the problem doesn't exist.

If you can't get wait times down to 14 days right now, I want you to let folks up the chain know so that we can solve the problem. Do we need more doctors? Do we need a new system in order to make sure that scheduling and coordination is more effective and more smooth? Is there more follow-up? And that's -- that's the thing that right now most disturbs me about the report, the possibility that folks intentionally withheld information that would have helped us fix a problem.

Because there's not a problem out there that's not fixable. It can't always be fixed as quickly as everybody would like, but typically we can chip away at these problems. We've seen this with the backlog. We've seen it with veterans homelessness. We've seen it with the post-9/11 G.I. Bill. Initially there were problems with it. They got fixed. And now it's operating fairly smoothly.

So problems can be fixed, but folks have to let the people that they're reporting to know that there is a problem in order for us to fix it.

QUESTION: What about (inaudible)?

OBAMA: We're gonna find out. My attitude is...


OBAMA: ... listen, if somebody's mismanaged or engaged in misconduct, not only do I not want them getting bonuses, I want them punished. So that's what we're gonna hopefully find out from the -- from the I.G. report as well as the audits that are taking place.

All right.

STAFF: Thank you very much.


JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: President Obama delivering remarks from the briefing room at the White House about the Veterans Affairs department scandal. V.A. hospitals around the country, 26 of them now, facing investigations as to possible misconduct. I want to go to Drew Griffin, the reporter from CNN who began this whole story with his investigation into the Phoenix V.A. Drew, the soldiers, the veterans that you speak with, what did they want to hear from President Obama today? And did he deliver?

DREW GRIFFIN, CNN SENIOR INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT: I tell you what they did not want to hear is we're going to wait for, yet again, another office of inspector general report or some fact finding mission. I was a little caught off guard by what apparently is a disconnect by what's happening out in the country and what the president is talking about.

I hate to be curt but these GAO reports, these office of inspector general reports, these memos dating back to 2010 to 2008, this problem is real. It exists. It really doesn't have to be studied as to what's going on. The government has done its job studying these issues. And to say that you're going to now wait for yet again more studies to come back and more fact finding to come back, I would think that the vets I've been talking to wanted much more direct action of what actually is going to happen going forward instead of wait and see and then we'll decide what's going to happen going forward.

I was a little confused by the president's remarks today. It seemed that at the same time he was saying he's known about this problem for years and years and years and it goes back decades far past into other people's presidencies and yet we're five years into his presidency and the problem seems to be certainly not better and perhaps even worse.

TAPPER: President Obama this morning saying to every veteran out there we're going to fix whatever is wrong in the V.A. hospital system.

Let's bring in the former special assistant to the V.A. Secretary, Darin Selnick, and also a senior Veterans Affairs adviser at the group, Concerned Veterans for America. Darin, what did you hear from President Obama? Will anything he said reassure your members?

CAPT. DARIN SELNICK, U.S. AIRFORCE RETIRED: No. I'm very disappointed. It will not reassure. I agree with what Drew said. We know everything. I read through the whole nine-page memo from 2010 and it was a cease and desist order. Good intentions are fine, but results count. And I'm sorry but I've been tracking the results from the V.A. and other than the homeless problem, there's been no improvements.

Matter of fact the claims backlog is still twice as bad as when Shinseki took over. Close to 300,000 backlog versus 150,000. So he improved things that he's racked but overall he hasn't improved anything. In 2010, the cease and desist order was given by the deputy undersecretary.

No, in four years it should have been fixed. So either they ignored it or they didn't know what to do with it. You can take this nine pages of very detailed problems and you can either fix it or you can use it as a manual to do it. So far we have seen this used as a manual to continue doing this problem and not fix it. Very disappointing, I know the veteran community will be disappointed as well.

TAPPER: Darin, walk us through these numbers. You say that backlog is bigger than it was before. President Obama and the current V.A. say they have actually reduced the backlog, but they also point out that they have now allowed individuals who were denied Veterans Affairs claims in the past, for instance, some who suffered from agent orange complications, and that's one of the reasons why the list grew to a degree. Walk us through these numbers, because we're hearing two conflicting things.

SELNICK: OK. Appreciate it. Will do.

First of all, if you think that the V.A. is fudging the numbers, which we've seen on healthcare for veterans and wait times, which I consider friendly fire, why would you not think they're not fudging the numbers on claims as to actual claims numbers. Shinseki re-established the benchmark in January of 2009 was 150,000 backlog.

You can look it up. It's online at the V.A. That number is now officially around 280,000 level, 290,000 level, and that backlog has been going down partly because they created a whole new class of provisional claims. A provisional claim is a claim that is not actually been finished or processed but is taken off the book and the veteran has a year to do the V.A.'s work and finish the claim. They manipulated the system to bring down the claims and even with that it's still close to double, close to 300,000 versus 150,000 in 2009.

That's one example.

TAPPER: OK. I appreciate that. Gloria Borger, I want to bring you in. This obviously is in addition to being a health crisis for veterans, a political scandal and controversy for President Obama and his administration. How did you see him responding to it today? What did you think he was trying to do?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: You know, I saw him make the case very clearly that this is one of the causes of his presidency. He pointed out that he served on the Veterans Affairs Committee when he was in the Senate. This was something he spoke about when he ran for the presidency in 2008. Has continued to be his cause, his wife's and Jill Biden's cause.

I saw the same president I saw with, for example, the healthcare reform rollout. This is a president who said, OK, I want accountability. I want to know the full scope of the problem. I want a broader review of the V.A.

On the political level, Jake, he was very careful about how he treated Shinseki. What he went out of his way to say is that Shinseki is a great soldier. He's a disabled veteran who cares very deeply about veterans. He made it clear that he wants these reports from Shinseki and he will still demand accountability. So I think he was still sort of holding it out there that if these reports show that Shinseki in any way did not pay attention to the scope of this problem or allowed this problem to be swept under the rug, it seems to me the president still left the door open a little bit that he might have to ask him to resign.

But at this point, I think he's giving him the opportunity to sort of continue these reviews. He's sending a senior White House adviser to supervise it in much the same way he did, Jake, with the healthcare reform rollout. He brought back a senior White House adviser to supervise that. Report to him directly within a month or so. Then I think we're going to see some action being taken. I understand why there's a lot disappointment out there that the president didn't do something immediately, I think this is also typical of the way we've seen him work in the past.

TAPPER: General Shinseki earned two Purple Hearts in Vietnam and lost part of one of his feet in Vietnam.

Michelle Kosinski, President Obama, as Gloria said, he did urge some backing off, or some support to general Shinseki. But I agree with Gloria, he kind of held out the possibility that Shinseki might go in the future. Do you agree?

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Definitely. You can't ignore the fact -- especially when you are going to talk about accountability and holding people accountable and I won't stand for it. You can't not address Shinseki's own accountability. I don't care if you're the leader of a company or administration, your job is to root out problems, to get ahead of problems, to know what's going on and these were known problems, which just compounds it. So of course you're going to want to make sure that those problems haven't gotten bigger and ballooned under your watch, which is in fact what happened here.

So President Obama left the door open for something happening in the future and changing in the future once this investigation is completed. But also, remember he said that if Shinseki felt like he couldn't ably serve veterans and didn't thing that he could do this job, then he is sure that Shinseki would not do this job. Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Michelle Kosinski and rest of the gang, thank you so much. Thanks for joining us today. I'll cover the V.A. scandal today on THE LEAD at 4:00 p.m. Eastern.

@ THIS HOUR with John Berman and Michaela Pereira starts after this quick break.