PRESIDENT OBAMA: Good morning, everybody.
I just met with Secretary Shinseki and Rob Nabors, who I temporarily assigned to work with Secretary Shinseki and the VA, and we focused on two issues: the allegations of misconduct at Veterans Affairs facilities and our broader mission of caring for our veterans and their families.
As commander in chief, I have the honor of standing with our men and women in uniform at every step of their service, from the moment they take their oath; to when our troops prepare to deploy to Afghanistan, where they put their lives on the line for our security; to their bedside as our wounded warriors fight to recover from terrible injuries. The most searing moments of my presidency have been going to Walter Reed or Bethesda or Bagram and meeting troops who have left a part of themselves on the battlefield, and their spirit and their determination to recover and often to serve again is always an inspiration.
So these men and women and their families are the best that our country has to offer. They’ve done their duty, and they ask nothing more than that this country does ours — that we uphold our sacred trust to all who have served. So when I heard allegations of misconduct — 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.
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 VA facilities has to be held accountable. The inspector general at the VA has launched investigations into the Phoenix VA 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 VA 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 VA 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 for 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’s 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 VA 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 pieces 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, whether 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 VA 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 VA 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 VA 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 who have post-traumatic stress and mental health issues and traumatic brain injury to get treatment, and improving care for women’s 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 GI 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 Joe 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 VA are going to grow. So we’re going to have to 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’m 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. 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 Kuhnhenn at AP first of all.
Q: Well, thank you, Mr. President. As you said, this is a cause of your presidency. You ran on this issue, you mentioned. Why was it allowed to get to this stage where you actually had potentially 40 veterans who died while waiting for treatment? That’s an extreme circumstance. Why could it — why could it get to that point?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, we have to find out first of all what exactly happened. And I don’t want to get ahead of the IG report or the other investigations that are being done.
And I think it is important to recognize that the wait times generally — what the IG indicated so far, at least, is the wait times were folks who may have had chronic conditions, were seeking their next appointment, but may have already received service. It was not necessarily a situation where they were calling for emergency services. And the IG 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 those things are in sync.
There are parts of the VA 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 are still too many problems.
I’m going to 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 a year. That’s a lot of appointments. And that means that we’ve got to have a system that is build 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 VA has got to set standards that it can meet.
Transcript courtesy of Federal News Service