President Obama addressed the ongoing investigation of VA hospital workers’ mistreatment of patients, which led to at least 40 deaths due to severely delayed treatment times, from the White House’s briefing room on Wednesday.
Obama emphasized in his announcement the importance of firm, unshakeable vigilance in tackling the problem — calling the allegations, if proven true, “dishonorable” and “disgraceful.” “Once we know the facts,” he said, “I assure you that if there is misconduct it will be punished.”
The scandal first began to unravel in late April, when a physician with the Phoenix Veterans Affairs (VA) Health Care system handed over documents and emails detailing an extensive plan to cover up lengthy wait times for veterans to receive their care. As CNN reported for six months leading up to the discovery, health care delays have run rampant across the country. Veterans in desperate need of surgeries and other operations sit idly by as their cases collect dust.
The documents obtained from Dr. Sam Foote, the recently retired Phoenix VA executive, adds an alarming dimension to the problem, as Foote explains there were two lists at play: an “official” list shared with Washington, showing the operation running smoothly, and the real list, which reveals veterans waiting up to a year to receive help. According to Foote, the information given to Washington was promptly destroyed after all the necessary sets of eyes had run over the reports.
"That hard copy, if you will, that has the patient demographic information is then taken and placed onto a secret electronic waiting list, and then the data that is on that paper is shredded,” Foote told CNN.
In his recent address, President Obama called for immediate transparency. “If you can’t get wait times down to 14 days right now,” he said, officials need to report up the chain of command that there will be delays. The announcement came on the heels of a meeting between Obama and Veterans Affairs secretary Eric Shinseki and deputy chief of staff Rob Nabors, who have been discussing the veterans’ agency’s response to the worsening crisis.
Shinseki, in particular, has drawn criticism and calls for his resignation as a result of the ongoing investigation, which has proceeded abysmally in the months since the problem has been known. Earlier this month, Shinseki ordered face-to-face audits at health facilities operated by the Department of Veterans Affairs. The audits are planned to persist for the next several weeks and are intended to monitor safe record keeping and scheduling protocols in the facilities.
Some have already called Shinseki’s efforts an empty gesture, as the real damage has already been done. As for whether the allegations made by Foote and other facility executives across the country turn out to be true, President Obama says the decision to act is unquestionable, although how much time must pass before he can take that action, while he waits for the investigation to close, is unknown.
"Today," Obama said, "I want every veteran to know we will fix whatever is wrong."