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President Holds Press Conference; V.A. Secretary Eric Shinseki Resigns; Will Justice Department Launch Formal V.A. Investigation?; Audit Showed V.A. Problems Widespread; Active-Duty Military Response to Shinseki Resignation; Reaction from American Disabled Veterans.

Aired May 30, 2014 - 11:30   ET


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: And what we're gonna have to do as part of the review is gonna have to be -- see how do we make sure that we get information about systems that aren't working.

Or, I just was talking to Rob Nabors, and he described to me, for example, just in -- in very specific detail, how, in some of these facilities, you've got computer systems for scheduling that date back to the '90s.

Situations in which one scheduler might have to look at four or five different screens to figure out where there's a slot and where they might be a doctor available. Situations in which they're manually passing requests for an appointment over to somebody else who's then inputting them. Right?

So, you have in many cases old systems, broken down systems. This is stuff that is imminently fixable, but we got to know about it. And, you know, the big concern that I've got, and what I'm going to be interested in finding out, is, you know, how is it that in a number of these facilities, if, in fact, we have veterans who are waiting too long for an appointment, that that information didn't surface sooner so that we could go ahead and fix it.

One last point I want to make on this. When veterans have gotten access to the system, the health care itself that they are receiving has gotten high marks from our veteran service organizations and the veterans themselves.

So, I think it's important to keep in mind that what the review indicates so far, at least, is that there have been great strides made in the actual care provided to veterans. The challenge is getting veterans into the door, particularly for their first appointment, in some cases, and where they don't have an established relationship with a doctor, and they're not in the system.

Part of that's going to be technology, part of that is management. But as Ric Shinseki himself indicated, there is a need for a change in culture within the VHA, and perhaps the VHA as a whole -- or the V.A. as a whole, that, make sure that bad news gets surfaced quickly so that things can be fixed. And I know that was the attitude of Secretary Shinseki and that was what he communicated to folks under him that they didn't execute. And that's a problem.

Kristi Parsons (ph), last question.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President.

You said that it was the general's own judgment that made the decision for you here. If I remember correctly, Secretary Sebelius offered you her resignation after failed and you declined to take it.

So I wonder if there's a little bit of scapegoating taking place here.

OBAMA: Meaning?

QUESTION: Meaning, I mean, the dysfunction within the department seems to have been very deep and very widespread. So is, you know, lopping off the head of it really the best step to take going forward here? Is there -- what I'm asking is is there a political reason for removing him other than going straight to the problem (inaudible).

OBAMA: Well, the distractions that Ric refers to in part are political. He needs to be -- at this stage, what I want is somebody at the V.A. who is not spending time outside of solving problems for the veterans. I want somebody who is spending every minute of every day figuring out: Have we called every single veteran that's waiting? Have they gotten a schedule? Are we fixing the system?

What kind of new technology do we need? Have we made a realistic assessment of how long the wait-times are right now? And how are we going to bring those wait-times down in certain facilities where the wait-times are too long? If we need more money, how much more money do we need to ask from Congress? And how am I going to make sure that Congress delivers on that additional funding?

That's what I want somebody at the V.A. focused on, not how are they getting second-guessed and speculation about their futures and so forth and so on, and that was what Ric agreed to as well.

With respect to Secretary Sebelius, at the time I thought it would be a distraction to replace somebody at HHS at a time when we were trying to fix that system. And I wanted to just stay focused, because I knew that if we bear down on it, and we got folks enrolled, that it would work.

So in each instance, my primary decision is based on how can I deliver service to the American people, and, in this case, how can I deliver for our veterans.

And because they are people of integrity, I think in both the cases of Secretary Sebelius, but certainly in the case here of Ric Shinseki, they've got the same priority. Their -- their view is what is it that is gonna best deliver on behalf of folks who, as Ric said this morning, have been let down. QUESTION: I remember at the time that you thought she had so much knowledge about what had gone wrong that you couldn't afford to lose that.

Does somebody with three months in leadership at the department have the capacity to attack the problems quickly now?

OBAMA: Well, we're gonna need a new V.A. secretary. So Sloan is acting. Sloan I think would be the first to acknowledge that he's gonna have a learning curve that he's gotta deal with.

But the nature of the problem that has surfaced and is -- has been the cause of this attention is one that we can start tackling right away and without completely transforming the system, we can immediately make some progress.

We're gonna have some longer term issues that we're gonna have to take care of.

So, my first step is everybody who's out there waiting, get them an appointment. If we need more doctors, let's figure out we can surge some doctors in there to make sure that they're getting the help that they need.

What I want to make sure of, then, is that even if it's still patchwork, how do we make sure that there's no slippage between somebody making a phone call and then getting an appointment scheduled. And let's have a realistic time for how soon they're going to get an appointment.

Those are things that don't require rocket science. It requires execution. It requires discipline. It requires focus. Those are things that Sloan has.

There are then going to be some broader issues that we're going to have to tackle. The information systems inside the VHA -- those are probably going to have to be changed. That will cost some money. That will take some time and will have to be implemented.

I think there are going to have to be some changes in the culture within the VHA because, as I said, they're providing very good service, medical treatment to our veterans when they get in the system, but they don't have apparently the state-of-the-art operations that you would want to see, for example, in a major medical center or hospital.

Now, keep in mind, those of us who are outside of the V.A. system and try to get an appointment with the doctor in the private sector and try to get an appointment for, you know, a schedule for a hospital visit, there are probably some wait-times as well. So part of what we have to do is figure out what are realistic benchmarks for the system.

And my suspicion is that with not only all the veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan coming back, but also the aging of our Vietnam vets who may have more chronic illnesses, may need more visits, we may need to get more doctors and we may need to get more nurses.

And that's going to cost some money, which means that's going to have to be reflected in the Veteran Affairs budget, which I have consistently increased. Even during fiscally tight times, there's been no area where I've put more priority than making sure that we're delivering the kind of budget that is necessary to make sure our veterans are being served. But it may still not be enough.

And we're going to -- but before we start spending more money, our first job is let's take care of some basic management issues that I think can be fixed.

All right? Thank you.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: The president leaving the White House briefing room after announcing he's accepted the resignation of Eric Shinseki as the secretary of Veterans Affairs. President saying it's a painful decision for him but Shinseki told him he did not want to be a distraction and the Department of Veterans Affairs need to move an and get to the task at hand.

Drew Griffin is joining us together with all of our reporters and analysts.

I think it's fair to say, Drew, without your excellent reporting over these past several months, the country would not have known about what's really going on at some of these V.A. facilities across the United States. Give me your thoughts as we just heard the president make this dramatic announcement.

DREW GRIFFIN, CNN SENIOR INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT: I think we really need to give credit where credit is due and that's to a retirement V.A. doctor out in Phoenix named Dr. Sam Foote, who was courageous enough to come forward to us on TV and also to the "Arizona Republic" and talk about the secret waiting list and the fact that 40 veterans died on it.

That was really the catalyst that turned this from just a news story we have been breaking and covering since last November into what has now become a crisis at the White House. My hat is off to him. A guy who spent 24 years carrying for vets at a V.A. hospital, finally had enough and had to come clean on what was happening at his hospital. That is really what led to this day.

BLITZER: And standby for a moment.

Jake Tapper has been covering this story thoroughly as well.

Jake, I guess the final point was this audit that Shinseki presented the president just a little while ago at the White House. An audit that says the Department of Veterans Affairs auditors found indications that many automated facilities had, quote, "questionable scheduling practices" that signal they, quote, systematic -- or I should say "a systemic lack of integrity" within some V.A. health facilities. So it wasn't just Phoenix or a few other places. There's a systematic problem or a systemic problem all over the country right now and that, in the end, Shinseki realized himself he couldn't go on.

JAKE TAPPER, ANCHOR, THE LEAD: I think the problem is that -- I mean, these are issues that veterans groups and some reporters have been covering for literally years discussing the long wait times and excessive wait times and how it was resulting in damaged health for veterans if not worse for some. There have been audits and inspector general investigations and Government Accountability Office reports on this. The problem is that it finally got the attention of the national media and the public.

That's what changed. There's nothing particularly new about this interim report that came out earlier this week from the inspector general or the audit that General Shinseki himself conducting with the White House deputy chief of staff, Ron Nabors. What's now new is we in the media are paying attention to it and the public is paying attention to it, and that's what changed. I hope that the policy makers and the lawmakers and the public now embracing this story and paying attention to it don't now think it's over because of Shinseki's resignation.

This is a problem that's been going on at the V.A. for years. It's a deep-seated systemic problem as Shinseki himself noted in this audit. It's a problem where people and managers and the people in charge of V.A. hospitals are paid and rewarded for clean performance reviews that don't necessarily bear any resemblance to reality and have very little to do with providing health care to those who volunteered or were drafted to serve this nation.

So the Washington drama part of this played out fairly predictably. It was almost a fait accompli as soon as Drew Griffin presented his reports several weeks ago that General Shinseki would end up resigning, however much people in Washington in positions of power were in denial about that. But the big problem, it's a shame it took so long for everyone to pay attention.

BLITZER: It certainly is.

And Jim Acosta is our senior White House correspondent.

You were there in the briefing room? The president was vague on whether the Justice Department, Eric Holder, the attorney general, the FBI would now launch a formal criminal investigation. He basically said it's up to the Justice Department. There's a lot of suspicion, Jim, that there has been criminal wrongdoing and that people were fudging books in order to get bonuses, and potentially that could be a crime.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. We heard the president only touch on that briefly saying at one point during this news conference, if you want to call it that, he only took a few questions, that the issue of scheduling had not reached the White House. That, yes, as Jake mentioned, and Drew mentioned, this is a problem that's been known about for years in terms of the wait times, the veterans waiting in long lines for care.

But the issue of whether or not the books were being cooked, that wait times were concealed, you heard the president say ever so briefly that issue of scheduling had not reached the White House. I thought that was very interesting because that's a question we've been asking for several weeks, Wolf, of whether or not people inside the White House knew about those issues and when did they know those issues. The president touched on that there.

A couple other things were striking. He was asked whether he takes responsibility for all this. He says he takes responsibility for what happens in his administration. But he did try to draw a line between, say, the problems with and why he did not accept Kathleen Sebelius' resignation, he wanted her to stay in there, and he had confidence that once the website was fixed that Obamacare would work.

You don't get the same sense of confidence from the president about the problems inside the V.A. You get a sense from the president that he knows these are deep problems. Keep in mind, the person in charge of the V.A., on top of the V.A., Sloan Gibson, is a deputy secretary of the V.A. who has only been there for a few months.

So the president saying during this appearance here in the briefing room that he's going to have to find a permanent V.A. secretary. And I have to assume, Wolf, that that is one of the top priority items for this president right now on his agenda.

BLITZER: He'll have to get that person confirmed, the nomination confirmed by the entire United States Senate. That could take a while. Sloan Gibson, deputy secretary, as you point, only a few months on the job, although someone with a lot of experience, a graduate of West Point, graduate of Harvard Kennedy School, someone with a lot of experience in the privacy sector. He obviously has a huge challenge ahead of him.

Drew Griffin, you know more about this more than almost anyone. Is there any doubt that the FBI and Justice Department needs to launch a criminal investigation?

GRIFFIN: I don't think so. If you're manipulating federal health records and doing that for your own benefit to get bonuses, I think there's no doubt, at least, those allegations should be looked at. Certainly, the inspector general has found evidence, strong evidence that may have taken place. We believe it did take place, by the way, from our sources.

But I want to mention something that Jim said. You know, the president sort of -- the president said bad news did not get to him. Meaning that Eric Shinseki was so insulated in his V.A. headquarter building that he didn't know this was going on. I'm going to have to strongly refute that. Because way back when, in November, when we first started this, we asked for an interview with Eric Shinseki, and we outlined what we had in those reports, and then we aired those reports, saying General Shinseki did not comment to us.

I find it difficult to believe that Eric Shinseki himself was not aware of many of the allegations going on. He was just not believing what we were saying and perhaps believing what his underlings were saying. So I'm not -- I mean, I respect the general. I have never met him. I wish I did. I wish I had met him months and months ago. But I don't think we can just let it pass that he can blame this on being lied to from underneath. In my opinion, only my opinion, he should have known about this.

BLITZER: I know, Drew, you asked repeatedly with every one of your reports for an interview with the secretary of Veterans Affairs, Eric Shinseki, and every single time, the Department of Veterans Affairs Public Affairs office came back to you and said no, no, no. You did report after report after report. And it must have been frustrating to you and your entire investigative team over there that they would refuse to talk to you every step of the way. They had spoken to you. They might have been better off right now if they had spoken to you and learned what you were learning in the course of your reporting. But all that is now hindsight.

Gloria Borger, let's get you into this analysis right now.

As you can see, the president -- it's a painful situation for him because when he was the United States Senator -- and he was only a U.S. Senator for a short time -- he did serve on the committee, the Veterans Affairs Committee in the United States Senate. He made that a big issue going into the campaign and going into the election that he was going to work to make sure the Department of Veterans Affairs got all of these issues right. And now he's learning, belatedly, that there are so many problems still out there.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: It's painful in a couple of ways. First of all, this is an issue that he cared about when he was in the Senate, as you point out. He also made it a cornerstone of his first presidential campaign. And he's continued to emphasize the importance of veterans.

Secondly, I think this is a personal issue for him. He went out of his way to talk about Ric Shinseki, as he called him, saying he's a very good man, a good person, an exemplary soldier. And I think it was sort of with a heavy heart that the president came to the briefing room today having to accept Shinseki's resignation because, as he said, Shinseki said -- and the president agreed -- look, he would become a distraction.

But there's something else I want to point out, Wolf, which is the question of whether the president should have known more about this earlier on. The president did accept responsibility saying, this is my administration. But he also pointed out that these issues at the V.A. predate his presidency. And if they predated his presidency, than the question is, why wasn't more done to resolve these issues of the long wait time, as both Jake and Drew point out, have been well known and also were well known in the previous administration.

So Shinseki said he was disappointed that bad news did not get to him. I think the president should be equally disappointed, by the way, as he was with the Affordable Care Act rollout, that the bad news did not get to him sooner. I think you have to sort of raise some questions about, if the bad news did not get all the way to the top, given what a priority this is for this administration, you have to ask the question why.

BLITZER: Yes, disastrous rollout of the health care website. That was a surprise to the president, top aides at the White House. And now all of these blunders at the Department of Veterans Affairs that shouldn't have been a surprise --

BORGER: Exactly.

BLITZER: -- as Drew Griffin accurately points out, because CNN has been reporting this for months and months and months. And people apparently weren't paying enough attention to what Drew and his team were reporting.

You know, more than 100 Democrats and Republicans over the past couple of days have now called on Shinseki to resign, and now Shinseki has resigned.

We'll continue our special coverage right after this.


BLITZER: President Obama just made the announcement, Eric Shinseki, the secretary of Veterans Affairs, offered his resignation, at the White House just a little while ago, and the president accepted that resignation.

Chris Frates is one of our investigative reporters.

Chris, this emerged immediately after Shinseki presented the president with this new audit showing really how bad the situation was, not just in one or two isolated V.A. hospitals and facilities but, indeed, in many places all over the country.

CHRIS FRATES, CNN INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. We have new information here now, an audit that was done between may 12th and May 16th of 216 sites. They found that, quote, "Many were flagged for further review." The kinds of things they found, quote, "questionable scheduling practices, signaling a systemic lack of integrity within some veteran health administrations facilities."

So, Wolf, this is telling us what Drew Griffin and the investigative unit has been reporting on for weeks now, that in meeting these 14-day wait times the V.A. set out as the amount of time between a veteran seeking an appointment and getting one, that that target was, quote, "simply not attainable."

The other things that we learned in this audit is that that information indicates at least some of these cases, "pressures were placed on schedulers to utilize these inappropriate practices." These are the secret wait lists that some of the V.A.s were using that CNN uncovered. They were using these inappropriate practices to make waiting times appear more favorable.

Now this is a pretty short report. It's only five pages, Wolf. It's a preliminary report. I suspect we'll get more. And so that's what we're finding today. I'm sure we'll hear more as the story unfolds. BLITZER: Yes, it seems to be getting worse and worse every single day. More of these horrible details dealing with our veterans coming out.

Barbara Starr's over at the Pentagon.

How's this playing with active-duty military personnel? I assume, like everyone else, they're pretty shocked.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, I have to tell you, Wolf, most active-duty personnel, most veterans, have known for some time about the problems at the V.A., just as Jake Tapper was pointing out. This is very well known, very well understood within the military.

But once it came to the national media spotlight, once it became a political firestorm for the White House, it really turned the spotlight on Shinseki for the first time in a way that he has never had that spotlight on him during his entire 38-year military career, the last five years at the V.A. This is a guy who has shied away from the spotlight. He's always believed staying in his office, doing his job, going out around the country, talking to people about the facts, is what he needed to do.

Once the firestorm hit, many people who know him very well will tell you that he really struggled with how to cope with it. He doesn't like the spotlight. Up until today, many people say he thought he could ride it out by showing the White House he had a game plan on how to move ahead. But at the end of the day, the question of whether his very presence would be a distraction, that's the argument that won the day -- Wolf?

BLITZER: Yeah, and he himself, according to the president, made that argument. He no longer wanted to be that distraction. And with so many Senators and representatives, Democrats and Republicans, saying he must go, he made that decision.

Let's get some reaction from Joseph Violante. He's with the organization, the Disabled American Veterans.

What do you think? What's your reaction, Joe?

SGT. JOE VIOLANTE, NATIONAL LEGISLATIVE DIRECTOR, DISABLED AMERICAN VETERANS: Good morning, Wolf. Secretary Shinseki is an honorable man, who had two combat tours of duty and was combat disabled in Vietnam. He's made many great changes at V.A. that we have supported for decades. And we have not called for his resignation because we had confidence in his ability to turn this situation around.

BLITZER: So what do you think about the resignation? Are you hopeful this will help the process?

VIOLANTE: I don't see how it will help the process, but the DAV stands ready to work with the new leadership at V.A. to ensure that veterans receive the services and benefits they've earned.

BLITZER: Are you members, the Disabled American Veterans, are they getting the kind of treatment --

VIOLANTE: Yes, I am.

BLITZER: Are they getting the kind of treatment from the V.A. that they need and expect?

VIOLANTE: Veterans that get access to V.A. are getting quality health care. Our members tell us the health care they received is the best. The problem here is an access problem. And I can tell you for a fact, going back to 2003, a presidential task force at that time found that there were 236,000 veterans waiting six months or longer for health care. And they identified a mismatch between demand and funding, and said if that mismatch wasn't addressed, we would have problems with access, and that's exactly what's going on right now.

BLITZER: Joe Violante, the national legislative director of the Disabled American Veterans organization.

Joe, thank you very much. Let's hope what the president just announced will help, because there's really nothing more important than making sure the veterans of this country get the treatment, the health care that they deserve and need.

I'll be back in one hour with much more coverage.

In the meantime, Ashleigh Banfield picks up our coverage on "Legal View."

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: And hello, everyone. I'm Ashleigh Banfield with our continuing breaking news.