Veterans Deserve Better than the White House’s Excuses

“There have been problems, you know. I heard on the news about this story that Fast and Furious, where allegedly guns were being run into Mexico and ATF knew about it but didn’t apprehend those who had sent it.” – President Obama on how he learned about the Fast and Furious scandal.

“Let me take the IRS situation first. I first learned about it from the same news reports that I think most people learned about this.” – President Obama

“Other than press reports, we have no knowledge of any attempt by the Justice Department to seek phone records of the A.P.” – Jay Carney on the seizure of Associated Press records

And now…. “We learned about [the fraudulent VA records] through the reports. I will double check if that is not the case. But that is when we learned about them and that is when I understand Secretary Shinseki learned about them.” – Jay Carney on the secret waiting list being found at Veterans Affairs hospitals.

These could be examples of one of two things: Either President Obama is wildly ignorant of the goings-on of his own administration or this is a deliberate media strategy to duck blame for serious problems. Sadly, I wouldn’t put administrative negligence out of the realm of possibilities for this White House, but when it comes to the VA scandal there is simply no excuse. After all, just last year Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-FL) alerted the president to these very real issues.

“I am writing to bring to your attention an alarming pattern of serious and significant patient care issues at the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Centers (VAMCs) across the country,” Miller wrote. “Recent events at the Atlanta, Georgia, VAMC provide a perfect illustration of the management failures, deception and lack of accountability permeating VA’s health care system. Because these issues are longstanding, systemic, and apparently immune to the current structure of accountability within VA, I believe your direct involvement and leadership is required.”

Nothing was done. The issue was swept under the rug where the Obama Administration was hoping it would be forgotten. Instead it has blown up in their faces. Over the past several weeks whistleblowers at several VA hospitals have come forward with evidence of substandard care, secret patient waiting lists meant to hide the fact that veterans were waiting months for service, and the destruction of documents to hide criminal misconduct and even achieve performance bonuses.

This is not merely a paper scandal. Veterans’ lives were impacted. Indeed, likely more than 40 veterans’ lives were lost, as a result of being denied a timely access to care. Ron Christie sums up the outrage:

For a president who seems to have endless amounts of time to talk about the miseries of those living on the minimum wage, Obama’s seeming indifference to the severity of the problems faced by our returning veterans seeking care at VA facilities is shocking.

Thus far, President Obama and his team have regarded the scandalous treatment of veterans seeking care from the government over which they preside as a political hiccup rather than an indefensible breakdown in competent management that has led to the deaths of at least 40 veterans. Late last week, McDonough assured us that Obama is “madder than hell” about the VA fiasco.

Please. We’ve seen the president show genuine flashes of anger toward the GOP in general, the Supreme Court following rulings he disagrees with, and anyone else who has the temerity to disagree with him on anything. In the present case Obama has largely been silent, absent, and behind closed doors—content to let Secretary Shinseki and White House Press Secretary Jay Carney bear the brunt of the growing storm in the media.

That strategy isn’t exactly paying off. After all, Jay Carney spent today attempting to scapegoat Veteran Affairs official Robert Petzel and take credit for firing him following the scandal. Carney even repeatedly mentioned the American Legion as praising the move. But as it turns out Dr. Petzel was already due to retire and the American Legion statement actually dismissed the resignation as “business as usual,” i.e. a token step that doesn’t address the “cultural change that needs to be made.”

In other words, the White House’s attempted spin to escape accountability for a scandal actually created more of a scandal. Fortunately there is a simple solution: Be transparent, own up to mistakes, and explain a path to progress. And please, whatever you do, stop claiming you learned about this stuff on the news.