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McConnell: Obama needs to work with Congress to address VA scandal

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May 13, 2014: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky. and other GOP lawmakers walk to meet reporters after a Republican caucus meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP)

When the Obama administration's veterans scandal came to public attention last month, it was unclear just how far the administration's failure of leadership and the mistreatment of our veterans extended.

Now, we’re starting to find out.

For instance, we now know that the delays and manipulation are “systemic throughout” the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), that as many as 1,700 veterans were affected in the Phoenix VA system alone, and that the scandal could extend to 42 medical facilities -- a substantial increase from previous estimates.

We know this because the VA’s own internal watchdog just issued a withering interimreport.That report, released Wednesday, was unsparing in its preliminary conclusion: “Our reviews at a growing number of VA medical facilities … have confirmed that inappropriate scheduling practices are systemic throughout [the Veterans Health Administration].”

The failure of leadership here demands concrete action. But that’s not what we’ve seen from the White House.

So far, we’ve seen no administration officials fired. A few officials have been put on administrative leave, and one resigned – when he was scheduled to retire this year anyway. Beyond that, President Obama has essentially sent a White House staffer into the field and told us he was upset.

That’s basically his response to this national disgrace. It’s light years away from his response to a flailing ObamaCare website.

Back when Healthcare.gov first showed signs of failure, the president promised to move Heaven and Earth to get it fixed (even though it’s still not complete). He told his people not to rest until a solution could be found. You could see the determination in his eyes.

But where is that determination now? Where’s the determination to root out the administration's systemic failures and provide our veterans with the care they’ve earned?

Don’t our veterans deserve just as much attention as a website? The answer is obviously yes – and a whole lot more, too. So the president needs to get serious and take action.

For instance, President Obama needs to stop defending Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki. Secretary Shinseki is an honorable, patriotic man, but he has failed to appropriately supervise his cabinet agency. New management is long overdue, something even the president's own party now recognizes.

The president also needs to hold accountable any official who was involved in the fraud and manipulation. Of course, Republicans understand that it’s hard to fire just about anyone in the bloated federal bureaucracy these days – even for transgressions as extreme as what we’ve seen here. So we’ve drafted legislation, which I co-sponsored, that would give the administration the power it needs to hold high-level officials accountable for complicity in this scandal.

The VA Management Accountability Act already passed the House of Representatives with huge bipartisan support. It just passed the Senate Appropriations Committee unanimously, too. But now the Democratic majority is preventing the bill from passing the Senate.

The Democratic majority needs to reconsider. And if the president is serious about taking action, he’ll tell his party to get out of the way of our veterans receiving the care and justice they deserve.

There’s a broader point here, too. The president’s spokesman recently said he didn’t really even know about the latest scandal until hearing about it in the news. Even though a top official testified he knew of inappropriate scheduling practices at VA medical clinics – as far back as 2010. And even though the administration has been warned about the claims backlog for years by me, by Congress, by independent watchdogs, and by people in the VA itself that problems were afoot.

So if the president honestly had no idea this was going on, that’s not an excuse – it’s an indictment.

The point is this: The 2012 campaign is over. The president needs to get off the campaign trail and focus on governing instead.

Our veterans sacrificed to protect us. And they deserve so much more than what they’ve been getting from Washington. They deserve the care they earned. They deserve justice.

The government’s own recently-released report makes that clear.

So President Obama needs to treat this scandal differently than he’s treated all the past administration scandals. This is not just some PR problem to get past; it’s a national tragedy that demands his absolute attention and full cooperation with Congress – so that we can substantively address this issue together and do right by the veterans to whom we owe so much.

Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is the Senate Republican Leader.

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