"No veteran should have to fill out a 23-page claim to get care, or wait months — even years — to get an appointment at the VA."
President Barack Obama went before the White House press corps Wednesday to promise accountability and a full investigation into claims that dozens of veterans died while waiting to see doctors at a Department of Veterans Affairs facility in Phoenix, but those words were actually made nearly seven years ago. In the summer of 2007, Obama appeared before the Veterans of Foreign Wars to pledge to clean up the VA and deliver more timely care to America’s veterans. The problems he was promising to address were strikingly similar to those at the heart of the current scandal, and his tough talk then Wednesday was striking similar to his tough talk then.
"When I hear allegations of misconduct — any misconduct — whether it’s allegations of VA staff covering up long wait times or cooking the books, I will not stand for it. Not as Commander-in-Chief, but also not as an American," Obama said on Wednesday. "So if these allegations prove to be true, it is dishonorable, it is disgraceful, and I will not tolerate it — period."
While many observers expected Obama to fire Eric Shinseki, the retired Army four-star general who has served as his sole VA secretary, the former general managed to emerge from his White House meeting with the president with his job still in hand. Republicans have pounced on allegations of mismanagement within the department, which could shape up as a major scandal for the White House ahead of this fall’s highly-contested midterm elections.
The scandal is only made more politically potent by the fact that Obama has spent most of his career as politician describing himself as an advocate for veterans and has repeatedly promised to reform the VA. During the 2007 speech, delivered while serving as a senator and a member of the Veterans Affairs Committee, Obama pledged to deliver better service to American veterans and to overhaul a system that has all too often become shorthand for waste, inefficiency, and staggering wait times.
"We know that the sacred trust cannot expire when the uniform comes off," he said. "When we fail to keep faith with our veterans, the bond between our nation and our nation’s heroes becomes frayed. When a veteran is denied care, we are all dishonored."
Two years later, in 2009, Obama was back before the VFW delivering a similar pledge: "cut those backlogs, slash those wait times, deliver your benefits sooner." The newly-elected president said that he planned to announce a competition among the VA’s branch offices to come up with new ways of doing business, the best of which would be quickly funded and implemented.
But in that speech, Obama also hinted at the difficulty of overhauling an organization that has shown itself remarkably resistant to change. "I know you’ve heard this for years, but the leadership and resources we’re providing this time means that we’re going to be able to do it," he said, referring to his effort to cut through the VA bureaucracy. "That is our mission, and we are going to make it happen."
By the time he returned to the VFW in the midst of his 2012 re-election campaign, Obama’s frustration had only grown. What was once a sense of invigorating optimism had been replaced in part by a weariness and anger at the VA’s practices. "When I hear about servicemembers and veterans who had the courage to seek help but didn’t get it, who died waiting, that’s an outrage," Obama said.
A year later, in March 2013, the Center for Investigative Reporting revealed what was perhaps behind that anger. According to a report by Aaron Glantz, when Obama took office in 2009, the number of veterans who were waiting more than a year for their benefits stood at 11,000. By December 2012, that number had ballooned to 245,000. That increase has been driven in large part by a growing number of veterans seeking benefits — both newly returned from Iraq and Afghanistan but also veterans from previous wars who have sought benefits under revised guidelines.
For a politician who before entering the White House pledged "comprehensive reform" at the VA the failure to get that number under control is surely frustrating. But that frustration also surely pales in comparison to what is felt by the hundreds of thousands who populate the VA’s wait lists.