President Barack Obama on Wednesday made it clear he is sticking with Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, whose resignation has been demanded by lawmakers and veterans groups over allegations that some veterans died waiting for a doctor's appointment.
But at the same time Obama said anyone found to have "cooked the books" on patient appointments will be held accountable.
"Listen, if somebody mismanaged or engaged in misconduct, not only do I not want them getting bonuses, I want them punished," Obama said during a press conference Wednesday following a 10 a.m. meeting with Shinseki and White House Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors, who is conducting a broad review of VA patient care.
The President said he expects to see a preliminary report next month.
Obama did not say when asked if Shinseki offered to resign, but instead praised the former four-star Army general for his dedication to veterans.
"Rick Shinseki, I think, serves this county because he cares deeply about veterans and he cares deeply about the mission," Obama said. "I know that Rick's attitude is if he does not think he can do a good job on this and if he thinks he has let other veterans down, I'm sure he's not going to be interested in continuing to serve."
"At this stage Rick is committed to solving the problems and working with us to do it," he said.
Obama said he intends to do everything he can to "get to the bottom of what happened and fix it."
At this time, Obama said he wants to know if the problem with gaming appointment schedules is systemic or limited to just a number of facilities across the country.
CNN first reported in April that up to 40 veterans may have died while on a secret list awaiting a doctor's appointment at the VA Medical Center in Phoenix, Arizona. Since then, similar stories about secret wait lists and manipulated appointment schedules have risen at 25 other VA hospitals and clinics.
Shinseki has come under almost unrelenting criticism over the past month.
Over the past week, a number of lawmakers as well as The American Legion and Concerned Veterans of America have demanded Shinseki step down. Shinseki had refused, telling a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing on May 15 he intended to stay through the end of his appointment in 2016 "or I am told by my commander in chief that my time has been served."
American Legion National Commander Daniel M. Dellinger, in a statement following Obama's remarks, said he was pleased that Obama is going to hold VA leadership responsible, but said the "decision to keep Secretary Shinseki at his post is an unfortunate one."
"Veterans continue to die waiting for their health care, senior VA executives continue to get their bonuses, and only after all of this is the secretary now pledging to fix what's wrong," Dellinger said.
Veterans of Foreign Wars National Commander William Thien said Obama's remarks were "the right words, and we share the president's urgency to fix what's broke, to hold people appropriately accountable, and to restore faith in the VA."
Shinseki's morning meeting with Obama, announced late Tuesday in an update of the President's daily schedule, fueled speculation that the President was asking for a resignation.
One week ago Shinseki accepted the resignation of Under Secretary of Health Dr. Robert Petzel, who had become a lightning rod for criticism over his management of the VA's health care agency. But Petzel's resignation was seen as an attempt to mollify critics, since he had already put in for retirement and Obama had already named his successor.
During his remarks Obama several times pointed out that VA problems with scheduling appointments predates Shinseki's tenure at the department. That same point was made last week by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, and committee member Sen. Patty Murray.
Murray said reports highlight the problem as far back as 2000, and then again in 2005 and 2007.
Early reports on patient wait times indicate the VA's goal was to get veterans in within 30 days of requesting an appointment or being referred.
Obama pointed out that Shinseki established a two week standard for appointments.
Nothing excuses anyone from manipulating data to make themselves or t heir hospital look better, Obama said.
"It is critical to make sure that we have good information in order to make good decisions," he said. "I want people on the front lines, if there's a problem, to [to report it] ... And that's the thing that right now most disturbs me about the reports – the possibility that folks intentionally withheld information that would have helped us fix the problem."
-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at email@example.com