President Obama’s motorcade on Thursday passed by — but did not stop at — the Veterans Affairs hospital at the center of the scandal over mismanaged care at the agency, despite calls for him to visit the facility during his Phoenix trip.
Veterans groups and Republican lawmakers had called on Obama to visit the hospital, which is located just a mile from the high school where he was scheduled to speak on a new initiative lowering federal mortgage insurance premiums.
Reports that veterans at the Phoenix facility waited an average of 115 days for medical care prompted a national outcry and investigations into practices at veterans hospitals. Then-VA Secretary Eric Shinseki was forced to resign over the scandal, and Congress passed a $16.3 billion reform bill to overhaul the beleaguered agency.
“I urge the President to take time during his trip this week to visit the Phoenix VA to begin to restore our veterans' confidence in it, and demonstrate his commitment to fully reforming the VA system which has too often failed them,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said in a statement earlier this week.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday that a visit to the hospital was not on the president’s schedule, but noted that new Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald's first trip after being confirmed was to visit the facility.
“There have been substantial operational reforms in place that are ensuring that the needs of the veterans in Phoenix are being better met by the medical facility there,” Earnest said.
“So we're pleased with the pace of reforms that have been put in place. ... It’s clear that there is more that needs to be done not just in Phoenix but at medical facilities all across the country,” he added.
A senior administration official underscored those reform efforts Thursday, saying the Phoenix VA Health Care System had increased its staffing by more than 300 employees since June and that wait times had been cut by 30 percent.
“VA medical centers have increased access to care inside and outside of VA, added more clinic hours and work days, deployed mobile medical units, and shared their best practices from VA’s high-performing facilities throughout the organization,” the official said.
Completed appointments within the Phoenix system are up 19 percent, and there has been a more than 82 percent increase in authorizations for area veterans to receive care at outside facilities.
The reform legislation passed by Congress last year makes it easier for veterans who had to wait to get appointments at the VA to obtain care from other providers.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Thursday, though, said that the administration needed to do more to address the problems at the VA.
“Today the president is in Phoenix, talking about the economy that we all know could be doing better. He won’t be far from the Phoenix VA facility, the epicenter of the VA scandal, where dozens of veterans died while waiting for basic care," he told reporters.
“Last year, the House and Senate took some positive steps in the right direction, but the system is still broken, and needs to be fundamentally transformed in a way that puts the needs of veterans before the needs of the bureaucracy," Boehner continued. "We call on the president to offer a long-term vision for reforming the systemic problems at the VA.
"We’ve yet to see it,” he added.
The president and Housing and Urban Development Department Secretary Julián Castro did visit a Phoenix subdivision that was redeveloped with federal dollars before Obama’s speech. Obama walked along a quiet neighborhood street and greeted homeowners, telling them they could save an average of $900 per year under his new policy.
"That could make all the difference for a family that's owning its first home," Obama said.
This story was last updated at 2:21 p.m.