President Barack Obama angered some veterans Thursday when he chose not to visit the troubled Phoenix Veterans Affairs hospital at the center of a nationwide wait-time scandal while in town for a speech.
Obama’s motorcade drove right past the facility on the way to the high school where he delivered his speech on the housing recovery.
A small group of veterans were among an eclectic collection of Obama protesters and supporters across from Central High School.
Vietnam-era veteran Jesus Miramon was wearing his old U.S. Army dress uniform and holding a sign saying “do not hate vets today” as he waited for Obama to arrive.
“It is true that he should not be hating a vet today, he should be showing us a little love today,” Miramon said. “His presence will be enough, even if he doesn’t say anything, it would be enough. But he should show us some kind of respect.”
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Obama was in Phoenix to discuss a different topic, the housing recovery. But he said he is committed to fulfilling the nation’s promises to veterans and his new Veterans Affairs secretary made the troubled Phoenix facility one of his first stops once he took over at the agency in July. He also said that there have been personnel changes and reforms to ensure the hospital is doing a better job of caring for veterans.
“So we’re pleased with the pace of reforms that have been put in place,” he said, while noting more needs to be done in Phoenix and other VA facilities. “We’ve made a covenant with our veterans, and this president is determined to make sure that we uphold it.”
House speaker John Boehner said Thursday that a major veterans bill enacted over the summer has not fixed what he called a “broken system.”
“We call on the president to offer a long-term vision for reforming the systemic problems at the VA,” Boehner said. “We’ve yet to see it.”
Arizona Sen. John McCain also criticized Obama, saying it was “deeply disturbing” that he didn’t stop at the hospital.
“Unfortunately, President Obama missed another opportunity to do right by those who have served and sacrificed on our nation’s behalf,” McCain said in a statement.
The Phoenix VA became the epicenter of a national scandal over the quality of care for veterans early last year amid allegations that patients were dying while waiting to see a doctor. A VA investigation found that at least 40 patients died while awaiting appointments in Phoenix, but officials could not “conclusively assert” that the delays caused the deaths.
Phoenix veteran Mike Woods said he was disappointed Obama skipped an easy visit that could have sent a message to veterans and hospital staff of his interest.
“He’s the commander in chief of our armed forces, and we’re veterans, we’re guys that went to war for him,” Woods said. “And he (doesn’t) have enough respect to see that we get care that our taxpayers paid deeply … for?”
Among others outside the high school were groups opposed to the Keystone pipeline, a proposed copper mine outside Superior and amnesty for immigrants in the U.S. illegally. A large group of immigration reform supporters also lined up, along with average Arizonans who just wanted to catch a glimpse of Obama and show their support.