Obama Let the VA Scandal Become a Political Circus

The president spoke out forcefully on the VA scandal that’s blamed for dozens of deaths. But his words came too late; this is now a spectacle and a political circus.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty

President Obama sounded resolute Wednesday addressing the secret waiting lists at VA hospitals, until you noticed the caveats that hung off nearly every line.

It was the first time the president addressed the VA scandal and it came almost a month after the story broke. But the speech was more detailed than anything that had yet come from the White House and sounded all the more forceful coming after VA Secretary Shinseki’s tepid appearance before Congress last week.

Had this speech come two weeks—or even 10 days—ago, it might have been taken in good faith as a signal that real accountability was coming in short order. But for many, that moment has passed. What was once a structural problem within the VA, a severe but manageable internal issue, has now taken on political dimensions that make solving the actual healthcare challenges for veterans more difficult. In early May, this was a VA scandal. Now, with everyone from Sean Hannity to Rush Limbaugh weighing in, it’s become a political circus—the “Vetghazi” they were waiting for.

“It is important that our veterans don’t become another political football,” the president said. And he’s right, of course. But this has already become a political issue, though it didn’t need to be that way.

Inevitably we’ve arrived at the point, call it the political event horizon, where substantive discussions about the VA’s serious problems may be lost in the vortex of Benghazi and death panels invocations.

“I know the death panel is obviously a factor in certain cases,” Rush Limbaugh said knowingly of the VA crisis, “whether they want to admit it or not.” It was a point Sean Hannity later picked up on and repeated for his radio show.

The opportunity hasn’t been lost on advocates of dismantling the VA and privatizing veteran’s health care. Privatization was brought up repeatedly to the veterans’ service organizations at last week’s Senate testimony, and unanimously rejected by them, including by conservative-leaning groups that were present. But the fact that veterans themselves overwhelmingly reject privatizing the VA hasn’t stopped the idea from picking up steam, in fact it’s getting more free publicity now than it has in a long time.

For weeks, the White House largely left the VA to deal with this problem on its own. The VA’s response was to insist that no conclusions could be drawn until investigations were complete. In other words: Despite the years-long history of warnings about the wait list buildup and the mounting evidence of its magnitude, essentially nothing could be done.

“If these allegations prove to be true,” the president said Wednesday, referring to the waiting lists and their alleged cover-up, “it is dishonorable, it is disgraceful, and I will not tolerate it, period.” But Obama stressed, echoing statements that Shinseki has made, that it is still too early to draw conclusions. “I don’t yet know how systemic this is,” the president said.

But that’s not quite true. On Tuesday night, hours before the president’s speech, the VA’s Office of Inspector General (IG) announced that its investigation, which began with one VA hospital in Phoenix, had now spread to 26 facilities across the country. The IG’s investigation is ongoing but the pattern of gaming the system, using similar methods to achieve the same outcomes, is remarkably uniform across the VA system. From whisteblowers in Phoenix and Albuquerque, to leaked emails from Cheyenne, there appears to be an entrenched and well established practice of false reporting tied to earning performance bonuses.

“We know that it often takes too long for veterans to receive the care that they need,” President Obama said. “It’s not a new problem.”

The problem is complicated. It involves the geography of VA medical resources, veteran population density and access bottlenecks, but as the president acknowledges, it’s not new. In fact, the VA has known about the access problem for years, and has received warnings about the crooked records-keeping schemes to cover it up with false reporting at least since 2010. But after acknowledging the roots of the problem, and the past warnings about it, the president offered nothing new today, as Shinseki failed to do last week, to explain how it has gone unaddressed for so long.

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And despite the long trail and ample forewarning about the problem, the president urged patience. “People are angry and want swift reckoning,” Obama said before stressing the need to let current investigations take their course before holding individuals responsible. It’s still unclear what these current investigations have to do with holding individuals responsible for past mistakes that have already been documented. Or, why new investigations are necessary to confirm that there is a problem at faculties that have already been cited for fraudulent records keeping in past official reports.

On the most politically contentious issue, whether or not Secretary Shinseki should resign, as some veterans groups and politicians have called for, the president gave the VA leader his public endorsement but added an addendum to keep his options open.

Secretary Shinseki “cares deeply about the mission,” the president said, and “if he doesn’t think he can do a good job…then I’m sure that he is not going to be interested in continuing to serve.” But in other remarks, the president suggested that firings and resignations could come based on the results of pending investigations.

By trying to just weather the storm rather than taking early, aggressive steps to police signs of internal corruption, the VA has unintentionally provided ammo to its own enemies. And the White House, which is only now weighing in after seeing the VA’s leadership flounder, missed its own opportunity to demonstrate strong leadership and instead gave its opponents the next scandal that they have been waiting for since Benghazi.

Obama’s late involvement may have come because he and his advisers feared this would become an indelible stain on his record, but the responsibility now unambiguously rests with the president. A growing national scandal dogging Obama’s legacy could force the level of senior attention and oversight necessary to address these problems—or it could make this even more political than it has already become.

Carl Blake, who testified before the Senate last week representing the Paralyzed Veterans of America, offers this about the VA’s role: “the VA’s specialized services, to include spinal cord injury care, blinded care, amputee care, and polytrauma care, are incomparable resources that often cannot be duplicated in the private sector.”

At its most cynical politics can become the art of calling old problems by new names and pretending that’s enough to fix them. But a spinal cord injury is a spinal cord injury no matter what you call it and what the VA needs now is the political will to force necessary reform so it can provide critical medical services to the veterans who depend on them.

Veterans who rely on VA services view the quality of that relationship as a basic measure of the nation’s ability to keep its word. In the turmoil and controversy lately it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the VA has made some significant gains in recent years and most veterans who receive care report positive experiences. But the more the VA tries to hide its problems, especially those that imperil veterans’ lives, the more it comes off as just another cynical bureaucracy and empowers its critics.

And those critics, who want to dismantle it entirely, are getting plenty of free public relations right now.

If you are a VA employee and have firsthand information about waiting lists, or other problems with patient care at the VA, we want to hear about it and can keep the details of your account confidential. Email your story to [email protected]