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Obama 'will not tolerate' VA mishandling veterans' care, urges patience

| Wednesday, May 21, 2014, 11:31 p.m.
President Obama speaks in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House on Wednesday, May 21, 2014, following his meeting with Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki. Obama and Shinseki met with White House Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors, who was assigned to oversee a review of the VA health care system in response to allegations of treatment delays and preventable deaths.

President Obama promised on Wednesday to punish Department of Veterans Affairs workers who may have covered up deadly scheduling delays for veterans, but asked for patience from those demanding swift action.

Obama dispatched Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors to the VA medical facility in Phoenix, where VA investigators are checking into allegations that at least 40 veterans died while on a secret waiting list. The scandal could grow as the Office of Inspector General checks into 25 other facilities.

The Tribune-Review could not confirm with the VA or the Inspector General if any VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System hospitals — under fire for more than a year over a deadly Legionnaires' outbreak — are involved.

“If these allegations prove to be true, it is dishonorable, it is disgraceful, and I will not tolerate it,” Obama said at a news conference.

He noted some VA executives are on administrative leave while the investigation is underway.

“I know that people are angry and want a swift reckoning. I sympathize with that. But we have to let investigators do their job and get to the bottom of what happened,” Obama said.

The promise failed to placate critics, who say the administration hasn't done enough to hold accountable those whose mistakes harm veterans' health care.

“Immediate action is required, but the president is urging patience,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. Miller said the VA “is in the middle of the biggest health care scandal in its history.”

Congress moved to keep up the pressure on the administration, with the House easily approving a measure Wednesday evening that would give the VA secretary more authority to fire or demote the 450 senior career employees who serve as hospital directors or executives in the agency's 21 regions. The vote was 390 to 33.

Sharon Helman, the director of the Phoenix VA, is among those placed on leave at the request of Inspector General investigators. The VA told Congress on Wednesday that it rescinded the $9,345 bonus Helman received on top of her nearly $170,000 salary.

“If somebody's mismanaged or engaged in misconduct, not only do I not want them getting bonuses, I want them punished,” Obama said.

But the White House remained mum to a Trib inquiry about a much larger bonus it approved in 2012 for Michael Moreland, then the VA's Pittsburgh-based regional director, during a Legionnaires' disease outbreak in which at least six veterans died and at least 16 more fell ill.

VA leaders defended Moreland's $63,000 bonus and allowed him to retire without trying to get the money back, even after the Inspector General found mistakes and mismanagement contributed to the outbreak.

“As I understand it, we cannot retract or take back these bonuses,” Dr. Robert Petzel, then the VA undersecretary for health, told Congress on Sept. 9. Petzel retired last week, though the VA tried to pass his departure off as a resignation.

The VA has not disclosed any disciplinary action related to the Pittsburgh VA outbreak.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the outbreak lasted from February 2011 to November 2012, but a Trib investigation found alarmingly high levels of Legionella — the bacteria that cause the pneumonia — in the VA's water system as far back as 2007. The Trib found discrepancies between what some officials told Congress and the public, and what others said.

More than 80 percent of Americans believe the country isn't doing enough to support veterans health care, according to a Robert Morris University poll. The poll by RMU's Polling Institute registered the opinions of 1,004 people from May 6-13, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Mike Wereschagin is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7900 or mwereschagin@tribweb.com.

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