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Obama late again in stepping up on VA crisis

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Published : 2014-05-26 20:30
Updated : 2014-05-26 20:30

Once again, a management mess. Once again, the White House says an angry president vows to fix things.

And once again, that vow comes more than a little late, creating another political problem for Barack Obama.

The president’s initial reaction to reports that Veterans Affairs officials covered up that perhaps two dozen veterans died because of delays in getting appointments was strikingly similar to his initial comments after last fall’s disastrous Affordable Care Act rollout.

In both cases, the White House bureaucracy reacted similarly, assigning a top staffer to supervise fact-finding and corrective efforts.

But Obama shifted gears Wednesday, clearly recognizing that he needs to do more to try to assure Americans that he is on top of the situation. Stepping before the cameras after meeting with embattled Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki, he declared, “I won’t stand for” misconduct, and he vowed that if it’s found, “it will be punished.”

Obama rejected any housecleaning, such as firing Shinseki, until there’s a full review of the facts. But he pointedly limited his praise of the secretary to saying several times that “nobody cares more about our veterans than Ric Shinseki,” while stressing that he expects accountability and prompt corrective steps.

It’s more than troubling that, after five years in office, Obama once again took weeks before acknowledging an administration management problem, an indication that the White House still has not fixed the failures that have plagued it all the way back to the unveiling of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a.k.a. the stimulus.

It’s easy to blame much of this on Obama’s lack of management experience. While his 2008 campaign was marked by administrative efficiency, that’s been lacking in his White House, in part because of his own failure to follow up after he delegates responsibility to others.

Exhibit No. 1, of course, is the Affordable Care Act. From the onset of last October’s launch, the computer system created by the Department of Health and Human Services suffered from repeated breakdowns and complicated procedures that were difficult to navigate.

More than three weeks passed before Obama addressed the situation publicly, declaring, “Nobody’s madder than me about the fact that the website isn’t working as well as it should, which means it’s going to get fixed.”

White House budget official Jeffrey Zients was delegated to oversee a crash corrective effort, but none of the responsible officials were initially replaced. (Some departed subsequently, and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius resigned six months later.)

To Obama’s credit, Zients fixed the problem. By mid-April, more than 8 million people had enrolled in the health program, well above earlier forecasts.

More recently, reports surfaced that Veterans Affairs Department officials may have covered up possibly deadly delays in treatment at the VA facility in Phoenix and elsewhere.

On CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday, White House chief of staff Denis McDonough said Obama is “madder than hell, and I’ve got the scars to prove it” from meetings discussing the problem. “We’re going to get to the bottom of those things, fix them and ensure that they don’t happen again,” he said.

The White House named deputy chief of staff Rob Nabors to oversee the effort. But after meeting Wednesday with Shinseki and Nabors, Obama himself addressed the issue, vowing to fix the situation while contending that his administration has made progress over the past five years in cutting average patient waiting times in half.

Taking a methodical rather than a more urgent approach will hardly satisfy administration critics, especially veterans groups and lawmakers who have called for Shinseki’s resignation. “We haven’t seen that quick proactive vs. reactive culture change we’d like to see,” American Legion commander Daniel Dellinger said on “Face the Nation.”

Meanwhile, there still seems to be substantial dispute over how many veterans died while awaiting treatment in Phoenix and at least seven other facilities. Whatever the number, it’s too high.

On Wednesday, Obama showed an understanding that he needs to do more than be “madder than hell” about longstanding problems. Few would be surprised if, sooner rather than later, that includes Shinseki’s departure.

By Carl P. Leubsdorf

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. ― Ed.

(The Dallas Morning News)

(MCT Information Services)

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