It’s fair to say President Obama’s Wednesday presser regarding the VA scandal was nothing short of a disaster.
An example of this occurred when Reuters reporter Steve Holland asked the president if Secretary Shinseki offered to resign during their meeting earlier in the morning.
The president responded to this simple yes or no question with a confusing, nearly seven minute response.
The response was so strange it led to NBC news’ Jim Miklaszewski to jokingly say "that was probably the longest answer I have ever heard to a yes or no question."
The full exchange can be found below:
Q: Thank you, sir. Has Secretary Shinseki offered to resign? And if he's not to blame, then who is? And were you caught by surprise by these allegations?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: You know, Ric Shinseki, I think, serves this country because he cares deeply about veterans and he cares deeply about the mission.
And I know that Ric's attitude is, if he does not think he can do a good job on this and if he thinks he's let our veterans down, then I'm sure that he is not going to be interested in continuing to serve. As this stage, Ric is committed to solving the problem and working with us to do it. And I am going to do everything in my power, using the resources of the White House, to help that process of getting to the bottom of what happened and fixing it.
But I'm also going to be waiting to see what the results of all this review process yields. I don't yet know how systemic this is. I don't yet know, are there a lot of other facilities that have been cooking the books? Or is this just an episodic problem? We know that, you know, essentially, wait times have been a problem for decades in all kinds of circumstances with respect to the VA — getting benefits, getting health care, et cetera. Some facilities do better than others.
A couple of years ago, the Veterans Affairs set a goal of 14 days for wait times. What's not yet clear to me is whether enough tools were given to make sure that those goals were actually met. And I won't know until the full report is — is put forward as to whether there was enough management follow-up to ensure that those folks on the front lines who were doing scheduling had the capacity to meet those goals, if they were being evaluated for meeting goals that were unrealistic and they couldn't meet because either there weren't enough doctors or the systems weren't in place, or what have you.
We need to find out who was responsible for, you know, setting up those guidelines. So there are going to be a lot of questions that we have to answer.
In the meantime, what I said to Rick today is let's not wait for the report. Let's respectively take — reach out immediately to veterans who are currently waiting for appointments to make sure that they are getting better service. That's something that we can initiate right now. We don't have to wait to find out if there was misconduct to dig in and make sure that we're upping our game in all of our various facilities.
You know, I do think it is important — not just with respect to Rick Shinseki but with respect to the VA generally — to say that every single day there are people working in the VA who do outstanding work and put everything they've got into making sure that our veterans get the care, benefits and services that they need.
And so I do want to close by sending a message out there that there are millions of veterans who are getting really good service from the VA, who are getting really good treatment from the VA. I know because I get letters from veterans, sometimes asking me to write letters of commendation or praise to a doctor or a nurse or a facility that couldn't have given them better treatment.
And so this is a big system with a lot of really good people in it who care about our veterans deeply. We have seen the improvements on a whole range of issues — like homelessness, like starting to clear the backlog up, like making sure that folks who previously weren't even eligible for disability because it was a mental health issue or because it was an Agent Orange issue are finally able to get those services.
I don't want us to lose sight of the fact that there are a lot of folks in the VA who are doing a really good job and working really hard at it. That does not on the other hand excuse the possibility that, number one, we weren't just — we were not doing a good enough job in terms of providing access to folks who need an appointment for chronic conditions. Number two, it never excuses the possibility that somebody was trying to manipulate the data in order to look better or make their facility look better.
It is critical to make sure that we have good information in order to make good decisions. I want people on the front lines, if there's a problem, to tell me or tell Ric Shinseki or tell whoever's their superior, that this is a problem. Don't cover up a problem. Do not pretend the problem doesn't exist. If you can't get wait times down to 14 days right now, I want you to let folks up the chain know so that we can solve the problem. Do we need more doctors? Do we need a new system in order to make sure that scheduling and coordination is more effective and more smooth? Is there more follow- up?
And that's — that's the thing that right now most disturbs me about the report: the possibility that folks intentionally withheld information that would have helped us fix a problem. Because there's not a problem out there that's not fixable. It can't always be fixed as quickly as everybody would like, but typically we can chip away at these problems. We've seen this with the backlog. We've seen it with veterans' homelessness. We've seen it with the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Initially there were problems with it.
They got fixed, and now it's operating fairly smoothly. So problems can be fixed, but folks have to let the people that they're reporting to know that there is a problem in order for us to fix it. All right?