Obama aide tasked with VA review amid secret wait list allegations

 

President Obama is ordering his deputy chief of staff to oversee a review of the Veterans Affairs Department amid allegations that hospital officials maintained secret waiting lists that endangered the lives of veterans.

Rob Nabors, a longtime Obama aide who previously led the White House’s legislative affairs office, will run a review of the VA’s patient safety rules and appointment procedures, according to a White House official. 

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The administration's focus on the VA department comes after a series of media reports suggesting that at least 40 veterans might have died after they were unable to receive needed medical care at a Phoenix veterans hospital. Similar allegations have been reported at facilities in Colorado, Florida, Pennsylvania and Georgia, among others.

"While we get to the bottom of what happened in Phoenix, it's clear the VA needs to do more to ensure quality care for our veterans," the president said in a statement. "I'm grateful that Rob, one of my most trusted advisers, has agreed to work with Secretary [Eric] Shinseki to help the team at this important moment."

The review undertaken by Nabors will occur alongside an investigation launched by the agency’s inspector general (IG), and indicates the president is looking to beef up the administration’s response to a brewing political firestorm.

As recently as Wednesday, White House press secretary Jay Carney suggested that the White House would wait until the IG had completed a review before taking action.

“The specific investigation that’s underway is one that we have to allow to take place before we understand fully what happened there and what action needs to be taken,” Carney said. “The Secretary has begun an investigation and made clear to the independent inspector general at VA that he would like to see a comprehensive review conducted of the situation in Phoenix.”

The effort appeared to mirror a similar initiative taken by the White House in the aftermath of the botched rollout of the president’s signature healthcare law. In that instance, Jeffrey Zients, who now serves as director of the National Economic Council, was tasked with leading the technical overhaul of HealthCare.gov.

Some Republicans, including House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), have called for a bipartisan review of VA policies in light of the allegations. And some veterans groups, including the American Legion, have called for the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.

A White House official said Thursday that it was Shinseki himself who asked White House chief of staff Denis McDonough to "add additional staff capacity to aid the VA’s review of patient access to care."

Shinseki, who is set to testify about the allegations surrounding the VA clinics before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Thursday morning, said he welcomed Nabors' review in a statement issued by the White House.

“I welcome Rob’s perspective in helping us to ensure Veterans have access to timely quality health care," Shinseki said. "If allegations about manipulation of appointment scheduling are true, they are completely unacceptable — to Veterans, to me, and to our dedicated VA employees. I have also directed the Veterans Health Administration to complete a nationwide access review of all VA healthcare facilities to ensure full compliance with scheduling policy. We will continue to improve the quality and safety of VA health care — America’s Veterans deserve nothing less.”

The president and other White House officials have repeatedly voiced support for the secretary amid the controversy.

“I think the VA has, under Secretary Shinseki, aggressively focused on the need to provide better care to our veterans, aggressively attacked the disability claims backlog that exists and was expanded before it came down by 50 percent because of the decision to make sure that those who had claims related to exposure to Agent Orange and those who had claims related to post-traumatic stress disorder were prejudged as likely to receive disability because of those claims,” Carney said Wednesday. 

“And that was the right thing to do,” he continued. “It also put added stress on the system and created an additional backlog, which the VA under Secretary Shinseki has been aggressively addressing.”

The Associated Press first reported that Nabors would undertake the review.

— This post was updated May 15 at 8:08 a.m.