Republicans slammed President Barack Obama's vow to "fix whatever is wrong" with the beleaguered Veterans Administration, charging that the president should have become involved much sooner and calling for an independent investigation.
"When the website for Obamacare wasn't working, President Obama publicly and repeatedly pledged to get it working," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said. "I'm disappointed he has not pledged as loudly and as repeatedly to do the right thing for our nation's veterans.
"They deserve more attention than a failed website," the Kentucky senator said. "It's time for serious action and accountability."
House Speaker John Boehner called Obama's outrage "belated" and then asked: "What about accountability for treating our veterans like second- and third-rate citizens? For deceiving them while their lives hang in the balance?"
"The president has made a lot of promises to our veterans," the Ohio congressman said. "It's time to keep them."
The House passed the VA Accountability Act later Wednesday. McConnell urged the Senate to take up the measure immediately.
In a news conference at the White House on Wednesday, Obama pledged
that any Veterans Affairs official responsible for delaying treatment for returning service members would be held accountable and said he had ordered Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors, whom he appointed last week to investigate the scandal, to make recommendations to fix the troubled agency.
The president added that the VA's inspector general was investigating reports that some centers kept secret waiting lists for veterans seeking care, to cover up failures to meet standards. Some veterans may have died while on the wait lists.
“If these allegations prove to be true, it is dishonorable, it is disgraceful, and I will not tolerate it, period," Obama said at the White House after a meeting with Nabors and Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki. Nabors is traveling to Phoenix on Thursday to oversee a review of the system there.
The president, however, did not call for Shinseki's resignation, saying he should remain on the job for now despite demands from the American Legion -- as well as GOP Sens. Richard Burr of North Carolina, John Cornyn of Texas, and Jerry Moran of Kansas -- that the retired four-star Army general step down.
"The VA has been aware for some time that inappropriate scheduling procedures are widespread among its medical facilities," American Legion National Commander Daniel Dellinger
said Wednesday. "Yet, Secretary Shinseki has taken no initiative in correcting the problem.
"Veterans continue to die waiting for their health care, senior VA executives continue to get their bonuses, and only after all of this is the secretary now pledging to fix what's wrong."
Nabors met with the American Legion and five other veterans groups on Tuesday.
The outrage over the White House response to the VA scandal crossed party lines on Wednesday, with two Georgia Democrats — Reps. John Barrow and David Scott — calling on Shinseki to quit. They were the first members of Obama's party to do so.
"Unfortunately, this administration has fallen short in providing the kind of care that our veterans have earned," Barrow said
. "While I don't think a change in leadership will immediately solve the serious problems that plague the VA, I do think it's time to give someone else an opportunity to lead the agency and begin the rebuilding process to ensure these issues never happen again.
"Secretary Shinseki deserves the utmost respect for his service, but it's time for someone new to get to the bottom of what's happened on his watch," Barrow said.
"The first person we need to fire is the secretary of Veterans Affairs," Scott said
Wednesday on the House floor, The Hill reports. "We respect him, we respect his sacrifice for his country and everything else, but the buck stops at the top."
Scott then blasted Obama.
"I listened to the president today, and I was very disappointed with President Obama today," he said, according to the Hill. "There was no urgency. Mr. President, we need urgency."
Republicans echoed similar concerns, saying Obama's promises rang hollow and reflected an out-of-touch, scandal-plagued administration.
Arizona Sen. John McCain called them "wholly insufficient," noting that the president "finally saw fit" to speak about the spiraling scandal.
The scandal broke after whistleblowers alleged that Phoenix VA Health Care
officials doctored the appointment wait times. The Phoenix system, which includes a hospital and at least a half-dozen satellite clinics, serves about 80,000 veterans. Similar problems have surfaced in seven other cities.
"While I am glad that after many weeks of refusing to acknowledge this widening scandal, President Obama finally saw fit to speak about it today, his remarks are wholly insufficient in addressing the fundamental, systemic problems plaguing our veterans' healthcare system," McCain said.
Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, said it was "completely unacceptable that it took several weeks for the commander in chief to publicly comment on the widespread delay or denial of care to our nation's veterans."
He echoed the calls for a national investigation.
"We have to understand the full scope of this crisis if we're going to ensure that it truly gets fixed," Thune said. "Tough words by the president aren't enough."
Meanwhile, Republican National Chairman Reince Priebus asked: "Why did President Obama wait to address this situation, only to ask our veterans for more time and to offer nothing but words?"
"We've known about these problems for weeks: facilities cooking their books, veterans dying while waiting for an appointment and bonuses being handed out to those in charge."
The RNC released a video
on Wednesday attacking the administration and its handling of the VA scandal.
"The administration, we now know, has known about them even longer," Priebus said. "Our veterans have had enough. They deserve results. And we all deserve more from our president. It's time for an independent investigation."
The VA system is the nation's largest healthcare system, serving nearly 9 million veterans every year at 152 hospitals and more than 1,500 other sites nationwide. Surveys show patients are mostly satisfied with their care.
"President Obama has finally engaged what is happening at the VA under his watch, but I remain concerned that there remains insufficient attention devoted to this crisis and the care our veterans deserve," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said. "The president has paid sparse attention to this crisis or the veterans impacted.
"Time is of the essence, for the sake of our veterans who deserve better," Cantor added, referring to the VA accountability legislation the House was considering. "Senior leaders at the VA must be held accountable, and the White House must continue to answer for the treatment of our veterans."
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