President ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBiden ahead of pace Trump set for days away from White House: CNN The Senate is setting a dangerous precedent with Iron Dome funding Obama says change may be coming 'too rapidly' for many MORE on Friday acknowledged that the Veterans Affairs Department has “more work to do” to regain the trust of veterans.
Speaking from a hospital in Phoenix where patients allegedly endured long waiting times for care that were subsequently covered up by officials, Obama said the department’s new leadership was “chipping away” at the problems.
“We all know that there have been significant problems at this facility, that the kind of cooking the books and the unwillingness to face up to the fact … went on too long,” Obama said after a closed-door roundtable discussion at the Carl T. Hayden VA Medical Center.
The president said that “trust is one of those things that you lose real quick and then it takes some time to build.”
An investigation last May found that veterans at the Phoenix facility had waited an average of 115 days for initial doctor appointments, even though official data claimed the wait time was only 24 days.
The investigation also showed 1,700 veterans had been secretly kept off official patient rolls.
Forty people died waiting to see a doctor, though officials could not conclusively link the deaths to the long wait times.
Then-VA Secretary Eric ShinsekiEric Ken ShinsekiFormer VA secretaries propose National Warrior Call Day to raise military suicide awareness Why aren't more Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Biden's Cabinet? Biden VA pick faces 'steep learning curve' at massive agency MORE resigned over the scandal, and Congress passed a $16.3 billion reform bill to overhaul the agency.
Obama strongly defended the VA’s performance since then, and chalked the controversy up to a “few bad apples.”
The effort is meant to streamline department coordination, improve customer service and allow veterans to navigate the agency more easily.
Friday’s discussion was attended by McDonald, several senior VA executives, representatives from a number of veterans service organizations and five members of Arizona’s congressional delegation, including Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMeghan McCain to Trump: 'Thanks for the publicity' Grant Woods, longtime friend of McCain and former Arizona AG, dies at 67 Will Trump choose megalomania over country? MORE (R), who blasted the president for not stopping at the hospital when he visited the state in January.
McCain, a revered Vietnam veteran, was no less kind on Friday.
“It is truly stunning that nearly a year after the scandal of VA health care was first uncovered, President Obama used his long-overdue visit to the Phoenix VA to announce the creation of yet another advisory committee to study the problem,” he said in a statement.
The roundtable “served more as a photo-op for the president than it did a meaningful discussion of the challenges our veterans continue to face in getting the timely health care they have earned and deserve,” according to McCain.
Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D), who attended the meeting, also panned the new advisory board.
“The president’s visit to the Phoenix VA was long overdue. We need action, not more bureaucracy, to ensure all veterans get the care they've earned,” she said in a statement.
Dan Caldwell, legislative and political director for of Concerned Veterans for America, said the “need for yet another advisory entity is hard to justify and this appears to be nothing more than another attempt by the White House to give the appearance that President Obama is engaged on the issue of VA reform.”
But Cara Hammer Campbell, a member of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), who attended the meeting, said afterward that she was “more confident that the President and VA Secretary are on the right path after last year’s crisis."
“Although it took 11 months for the president to finally make a visit to the epicenter of the VA scandal, we are pleased the highest level of government has finally given this issue the attention it deserves,” said IAVA CEO and Founder Paul Rieckhoff.