The president called reports of mismanagement of veterans' medical care 'disgraceful,' but stands by the department's secretary.
President Obama promised punishment for Veterans Affairs Department employees who are found to be involved in the growing scandal over lengthy wait times for and falsified documents of veterans' medical care.
"When I hear 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," Obama said Wednesday. "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."
Obama made the remarks after a private meeting with Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki and Deputy White House Chief of Staff Rob Nabors Wednesday morning. At least 26 veterans affairs facilities are facing allegations that employees have been cooking the books to mask long waiting times for veterans seeking medical care, according to the Office of the Inspector General. The office has opened an investigation into the scandal, and Nabors has been tapped to assist in the probe.
"I know that people are angry and want swift reckoning. I sympathize with that," Obama said. "We have to let the investigators do their job and get to the bottom of what happened. Our veterans deserve to know the facts."
Obama said that employees at veterans affairs centers who have manipulated or falsified documents must be held accountable. "Once we know the facts, I assure you, if there is misconduct, it will be punished," he added.
The statement marks the first time that the president has personally addressed the growing scandal at the Veterans Affairs Department. The first results of the investigation are expected to come next week, while Nabors will release a full report in June.
White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said over the weekend that Obama was "madder than hell" over allegations that veterans affairs officials were cooking their books to mask long waiting times for veterans seeking doctors' appointments, some of whom reportedly died before they could receive medical care.
But the White House has stood by Shinseki, even as veterans groups and a few members of Congress have called for the secretary's immediate resignation. Obama highlighted some of the "progress" the VA has made under Shinseki's tenure Wednesday including the department's work to combat homeless among veterans.
Nabors is heading to Phoenix on Wednesday, where the scandal originated last month after CNN reported that officials there were keeping secret waiting lists while at least 40 veterans died without medical care. Nabors is scheduled to meet with local veterans affairs leaders there.
Also on Wednesday, McDonough will visit Capitol Hill to meet with Senate Veterans Affairs Committee chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.