WASHINGTON -- With outrage mounting over veterans' health care, President Barack Obama declared Wednesday that allegations of misconduct at VA hospitals will not be tolerated, and he left open the possibility that Secretary Eric Shinseki, a disabled war veteran, could be held to account.
"I will not stand for it -- not as commander in chief but also not as an American," Obama said following an Oval Office meeting with the embattled Shinseki.
Congress moved to keep up the pressure on the administration, with the House easily approving a measure Wednesday evening that would give the VA secretary more authority to fire or demote the 450 senior career employees who serve as hospital directors or executives in the agency's 21 regions. The vote was 390 to 33.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, sponsored the measure, saying VA officials who have presided over mismanagement or negligence are more likely to receive bonuses or glowing performance reviews than any sort of punishment. He declared that a "widespread and systemic lack of accountability is exacerbating" the department's problems.
The White House said it supported the goal of seeking greater accountability at the VA but had unspecified concerns about the legislation.
The growing furor surrounding the Department of Veterans Affairs centers on allegations of treatment delays and preventable deaths at VA hospitals. The department's inspector general's office says 26 facilities are being investigated nationwide, including a Phoenix hospital facing allegations that 40 people died while waiting for treatment and staff kept a secret list of patients in order to hide delays in care.
The allegations have raised fresh concerns about the Obama administration's management of a department that has been struggling to keep up with the influx of new veterans returning home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama's comments Wednesday -- his first on the matter in more than three weeks -- signaled a greater urgency by the White House to keep the matter from spiraling into a deeper political problem in a midterm election year.
"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 you and your families deserve, now and for decades to come," Obama said.
Yet the president's remarks did little to quell the criticism of both the VA troubles and his own handling of the matter.
Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, a former prisoner of war, said Obama's comments were "wholly insufficient in addressing the fundamental, systemic problems plaguing our veterans' health care system." And the American Legion, the nation's largest veterans service organization, said Obama was making an "unfortunate" decision by keeping Shinseki at the helm of the VA.
"Words are nice, and even somewhat comforting, but when will the VA's house be cleansed of those who are soiling it and dishonoring the system?" American Legion National Commander Daniel M. Dellinger said in a statement.
Several GOP lawmakers also are seeking Shinseki's resignation, as are Georgia Reps. John Barrow and David Scott, who on Wednesday became the first Democrats to call for the secretary to step down. Barrow is facing one of the most challenging re-election fights of any House Democrat.
Shinseki, a retired Army four-star general, did not appear with the president publicly Wednesday. While Obama spoke of the secretary warmly, saying he had put his "heart and soul" into improving care for the nation's veterans, he added that there would be "accountability throughout the system" if the allegations are proved true.
The White House's more immediate concern appears to be quickly getting the results of the VA's internal reviews of the hospital troubles. Shinseki is due to give Obama a preliminary report next week, with a broader review being overseen by White House deputy chief of staff Rob Nabors scheduled to wrap up in June.
Nabors, who also took part in the Oval Office meeting with Shinseki, headed to Phoenix on Wednesday to meet with staff at the VA hospital that is at the center of the allegations.
The current director of the Phoenix VA Health Care System, Sharon Helman, has been placed on leave while the VA's inspector general investigates the claims raised by several former VA employees. Investigators probing the claims say they have so far not linked any patient deaths in Phoenix to delayed care. A report is due in August.
Last year, Helman was awarded a $9,345 bonus in addition to her $169,000 annual salary. Shinseki rescinded the bonus on Wednesday, the VA said. A spokesman said the bonus had been awarded through an administrative error.
Two Republican senators have introduced legislation to prohibit payment of bonuses to employees at the Veterans Health Administration through next year. Sens. Richard Burr of North Carolina and Deb Fischer of Nebraska said the VA should focus its spending on fixing problems at the agency, "not rewarding employees entrenched in a failing bureaucracy." Burr is the senior Republican on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, and Fischer is on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Both have called for Shinseki to step down.
The House passed a bill in February that would eliminate performance bonuses for the department's senior executive staff through 2018.