Washington: US President Barack Obama has been forced to address allegations that as many as 40 military veterans died while waiting for treatment at a Veterans Affairs facility and that administrators sought to cover-up long waiting lists.
“If these allegations prove to be true, it is dishonourable, it is disgraceful and I will not tolerate it, period,” said Mr Obama
after he met with the Veterans Affairs secretary on Wednesday and one of his senior aides, who he had attached to the department during investigations.
The potentially devastating scandal has spread from revelations about deaths and cover-ups at one facility in Phoenix and investigators are now looking into 26 Veterans Affairs facilities.
“I know that people are angry and want swift reckoning,” he said. “I sympathise with that. But we have to let the investigators do their job and get to the bottom of what happened.”
Mr Obama has made care for veterans a pillar of his administration after having campaigned on the issue in the lead-up to the 2008 election, which came after a scandal over the neglect of wounded veterans at the Walter Reed Army Medical Centre in Washington.
Mr Obama has spent much of his second term hosing down potential scandals, ranging from revelations of widespread data-harvesting by the National Security Agency to investigations into claims the State Department attempted to cover-up the events surrounding the terrorist attack on the US diplomatic facility in Benghazi.
And even though Americans remain divided over the causes and effects of more than 10 years of war, nothing unifies the nation so much as its regard for veterans.
As the November mid-term elections approach, many Republicans are seeking to lay blame for the Veterans Affairs’ poor care and cover-ups at the door of the White House, and even link the healthcare reforms known as Obamacare to the brewing scandal.
“This administration’s ineffectual response has created a crisis of confidence in our veterans’ community,” said Senator John McCain. “We need answers, leadership and accountability, none of which we’ve seen from the Obama administration to date.”
A columnist in the conservative National Review wrote: “No one is suggesting that such scandals are widespread in the general health-care system. But they should serve as a warning sign of what could happen as the pressure to ration, inherent in all government-managed health care, is applied to the general population.”
Mr Obama said some Veterans Affairs staff had already been put on administrative leave and that anyone found to have falsified records would be held accountable. He also announced a wide-ranging review into the department’s administration.
Its workload has been significantly increased by the winding down of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the recognition under the Obama administration of veterans of the Vietnam War suffering from long-term illnesses caused by the spraying of Agent Orange.
Agent Orange alone took up 37 per cent of the Veterans Benefits Administration’s claims-processing resources nationally from October 2010 to March 2012, The Atlantic reported.
Though Veterans Affairs had funding increased from $US100 billion ($108 billion) in 2009 to $US154 billion this year, claims for assistance jumped from 423,000 in 2009 to 883,000 in 2012.
According to The Atlantic’s analysis, the organisation could not expand fast enough to meet demand, even with the increased funding.
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