President Obama on Wednesday met at the White House with embattled VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. / Win McNamee Getty Images
WASHINGTON -- President Obama on Wednesday called allegations that government officials falsified data to hide how long veterans were waiting to see doctors "intolerable" and "disgraceful" and vowed to hold those responsible accountable if the charges prove true.
"I will not tolerate it, period," Obama said.
Obama added he won't stand for people covering up long wait times or cooking the books. He has ordered a broad review, but is also asking for patience while investigators get to the bottom of what happened.
The president spoke to reporters shortly after meeting at the White House with Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki and White House deputy chief of staff Rob Nabors, who has been tasked by Obama to help the VA chief conduct a nationwide review of VA hospitals' policies.
The president said that he expected a preliminary report from Nabors and Shinseki next week.
Shinseki, who is facing calls from the American Legion and Republican lawmakers to resign, and Nabors are set to travel to Phoenix on Wednesday to speak to hospital officials. Reports there that workers were hiding delays in wait times for doctors' appointments first surfaced several weeks ago at that facility and spurred the current furor.
Obama offered a measured endorsement of Shinseki, noting that retired general has put his "heart and soul" into the VA, but the president also said that he wanted to see the results of the investigation.
"I have said to Rick and I said it to him today, 'I want to see the result of what these reports are, and there is going to be accountability,'" Obama said. "I am going to expect even before the reports are done that we are seeing significant improvement in terms of how the admissions process takes place in all our VA health care facilities."
Obama's comments are unlikely to tamp down growing GOP criticism over the VA scandal.
"The disability claims backlog is a national disgrace, which is why I called the Obama administration to task for mishandling these claims last year, and have raised the issue with Secretary Shinseki for years," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in a statement. "A crisis of the magnitude facing the VA on providing care to our veterans demands clear leadership from President Obama. Unfortunately, so far I have yet to hear from the president that he is treating the VA crisis with the seriousness it deserves."
Ahead of the president's statement, the office of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, took aim at Obama, charging that his rhetoric on fixing problems at the VA - which for years has faced criticism over the long wait times that U.S. veterans have been facing to have their disability claims processed - hasn't been matched with action by the administration.
Going back to his first run for the White House, Obama vowed to improve veterans health care, even calling it a "moral obligation."
"The Obama administration says the president is 'madder than hell' at the widespread mismanagement of the VA health care system across the country, as all Americans are right to be," the speaker's office said in a statement. "But the administration's failure to resolve these problems is a far cry from the personal responsibility he promised."
The White House has sidestepped questions about when Obama learned about the depth of the problems at the VA,.
"Over the years, the administration has been faced with one scandal, misstep, or governmental failing after another," Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the GOP whip, said in a statement. "And when each new report of ineptitude surfaces, the administration's response time and again is 'we didn't know.'"
An internal VA memo from 2010 that was disclosed at a congressional hearing last week showed officials were warned of inappropriate scheduling practices to cover up long waits for veterans four years ago.
During recent testimony before Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, the then-Veterans Health Administration chief Robert Petzel - who resigned Friday - said that a face-to-face audit of all 151 VA hospitals and all the major clinics would be completed at the end of last week. He added that the rest of the VA's 820 clinics would be reviewed this week.
The pattern has been to deploy auditors and, where problems are identified, to call in the inspector general to investigate - with the possibility of placing certain employees on administrative leave. Last Friday, VA acting inspector general Richard Griffin told the committee his office was already looking at 10 facilities. On Tuesday, the IG said that number had more than doubled to 26.
Meanwhile, FBI Director James Comey told lawmakers on Capitol Hill Wednesday that there is a predicate for a criminal investigation if claims are true of document destruction and other allegations in the mounting scandal engulfing the VA.
Comey said that the bureau has not yet been asked to assist in the inquiry, but some lawmakers urged that the bureau's involvement was now necessary.
"My view is that only the FBI has the resources, expertise and authority to do the kind of investigation to restore the trust and confidence of the Veterans Administration,'' Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., told the FBI director.
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