Friday, October 31st, 2014

Fact-checking claims about the VA wait lists

President Barack Obama and Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki. (Getty Images)
President Barack Obama and Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki. (Getty Images)

Allegations about secret wait lists and delays for veterans seeking care at VA facilities around the country have begun to reverberate in Washington.

The controversy stemmed from a variety of reports about lengthy delays that may have contributed to veterans’ deaths, compounded by allegations of efforts to cover up the delays at several VA facilities, including one in Phoenix.

The news got the pundits talking, and provided PunditFact fodder for a few fact-checks.

"It's an outrage," Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of the liberal magazine The Nation, said on CBS’ Face the Nation. "Those who are involved in these longer wait times must be held accountable, prosecuted to the full extent of the law. But I think we need to step back."

She continued, "I mean, Congress has cut funding, has slashed funding, for veterans' benefits over these last years. If anyone should be offering their resignation, maybe the Congress should."

Vanden Heuvel’s claim rates False.

First, vanden Heuvel said "veterans' benefits" -- which include disability payments, pensions, survivor benefits and programs like the G.I. Bill and vocational rehabilitation. Those programs are considered "mandatory spending," which means they’re paid by a statutory formula and are not subject to annual budgetary tinkering by Congress.

What vanden Heuvel meant to refer to -- based on what she told us and the context of her comments -- was spending for the VA health system. Health system spending is considered "discretionary" spending and under the purview of Congress.

But Congress hasn’t "cut" or "slashed funding to the VA health care system. Far from being "slashed," discretionary spending at the VA has risen each year over the last decade. In fact, on Obama’s watch, the VA’s discretionary budget has risen from $47.8 billion in 2009 to $63.4 in 2014 -- a one-third increase over five years.

When we reached out to vanden Heuvel, she acknowledged that the words she had used on Face the Nation made her statement inaccurate.

"In the moment, I was not precise with my words and made it sound like Congress cut year-over-year funding, which is not what happened," vanden Heuvel said.

One of the other stories we’ve heard plenty about is the reaction from Obama and the White House. Before Obama discussed issues at the VA in a news conference on Wednesday, observers noted that the president had been relatively silent on the issue.

In an interview with CBS News, White House chief of staff Denis McDonough said Obama is "madder than hell" about the possibility that care was denied to people who needed treatment.

But CBS chief White House correspondent Major Garrett pushed McDonough on what Obama is doing about it.

"It's been nearly three weeks since the president has commented on this publicly," Garrett said."Where's the president been?

McDonough never really provided a clear answer to Garrett, so we wanted to see exactly what the president has said since the story broke. Garrett’s claim rates True.

Before his May 21 comments, Obama last addressed the VA controversy during a press conference in Manila, Philippines, on April 28. A reporter asked if Obama would pledge to fix things.

"The moment we heard about the allegations around these 40 individuals who had died in Phoenix, I immediately ordered the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Gen. (Eric) Shinseki, to investigate," Obama said. "We also have an IG (inspector general) investigation taking place. And so we take the allegations very seriously."

The span between Obama’s April 28 comments and the May 21 news conference? 23 days.