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Obama angry over falsification of VA data, as criticism builds

WASHINGTON — President Obama is enraged about reports that some medical facilities run by the Department of Veterans Affairs have falsified data to hide substantial delays for veterans to see doctors, and he has demanded that the department’s leaders “fix these things,” the White House chief of staff said Sunday.

“The president is madder than hell, and I’ve got the scars to prove it, given the briefings that I’ve given the president” on the subject, the chief of staff, Denis R. McDonough, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

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He said the White House had “deployed additional staff over to the veterans administration to dig into this, to find out if this is a series of isolated cases or whether this is a systemic issue that we need to address with wholesale reform.”

McDonough also called attention to what he said had been substantial increases in resources devoted to veterans care under Obama.

Veterans groups have expressed anger over reports that workers at some medical centers kept secret waiting lists to disguise what could be waits of months by veterans to see doctors. The department’s inspector general is working with federal prosecutors to determine whether any crimes have been committed.

“We realize that the administration has done a lot for the veterans, but that isn’t the issue,” Dan Dellinger, director of the American Legion, said on CBS. He said that under the Veterans Affairs secretary, Eric K. Shinseki, “accountability hasn’t been there,” that there had been “egregious mismanagement of the entire system.”

McDonough gave no indication that the president was considering dismissing Shinseki, despite calls from several Republican lawmakers and some veterans that he do so.

Feeling heat

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Asked whether Shinseki retained the president’s full confidence, and was the right person to lead any reforms, McDonough said “he will continue to work these issues until they’re fixed.”

When pressed about why the president had not publicly addressed the matter, McDonough replied: “Nobody is more outraged about this . . . than the president of the United States. And he will continue to press as it relates to this question of timely access to care until it is fixed.”

The interview was taped Friday, a day after Shinseki, in testimony before a Senate committee, declared that he was angry about the reported allegations and said that he had no intention of resigning.

House Republicans have scheduled a vote for Wednesday on legislation that would give Shinseki greater authority to fire or demote senior executives and administrators at the agency and its 152 medical centers.

The allegations of long waits for care at VA hospitals, some of which reportedly contributed to patient deaths, have triggered an election-year firestorm.

Federal investigators visited a VA hospital in suburban Chicago to look into a report that secret lists were used to conceal long patient wait times for appointments. Senator Tom Udall, Democrat of New Mexico, meanwhile, called for an investigation into reports that schedulers at a VA medical center in Albuquerque were ordered to falsify patient appointment records.

Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said the Veterans Affairs Department is suffering from ‘‘a systemic, cultural problem’’ that cannot be solved with piecemeal responses, such as the resignation of a top official.

‘‘What’s needed is a total refocusing of the VA on its core mission of serving veterans — stretching from its top political leadership all the way through to its career civil servants,’’ McCain said Saturday in the weekly Republican radio and Internet address.

Citing news reports that VA managers received performance bonuses even as internal audits revealed lengthy wait times for health care, McCain said top VA officials too often have been ‘‘motivated by all the wrong incentives and rewards.’’

McCain, a Vietnam veteran, said Congress must give VA administrators greater ability to hire and fire those charged with caring for veterans, as well as give veterans greater flexibility in how they get quality care in a timely manner.

Reports of long waits for appointments and processing benefit applications have plagued the VA for years. Officials have shortened benefits backlogs, but a former clinic director said up to 40 veterans died while awaiting treatment at the Phoenix VA hospital, where hospital staff allegedly kept a secret appointment list to mask the delays.

A VA nurse in Cheyenne, Wyo., was put on leave for allegedly telling employees to falsify appointment records. A VA investigation in December found that staffers at a Fort Collins, Colo., clinic were trained to make it appear as if veterans got appointments within 14 days.

Problems also have been reported in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Missouri, Texas, Florida, and other states.

Robert Petzel, the VA’s undersecretary for health care, had been scheduled to retire this year but instead stepped down Friday. Petzel had said he would remain until the Senate confirmed a replacement, but a department official said Shinseki asked Petzel to leave immediately.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.
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