Obama defends handling of VA issues
His standing with veterans damaged by scandal, President Barack Obama on Tuesday defended his administration's response to Veterans Affairs lapses that delayed health care for thousands of former service members, but conceded more needed to be done to regain their trust.Posted — Updated
His appearance also had deep political overtones in a state where the Democratic senator, Kay Hagan, is facing a difficult re-election and has sought to distance herself from Obama's policies, declaring as recently as Friday that his administration had not "done enough to earn the lasting trust of our veterans."
But Hagan and Republican Sen. Richard Burr were at the North Carolina Air National Guard Base to greet Obama. She welcomed him warmly, and the president gave her a peck on the cheek.
Obama and Hagan were both addressing the American Legion's National convention, with the president's address to the legionnaires the latest administration response to the health care uproar that led to the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki in May.
Obama declared that the nation owes veterans for their service and that the lengthy wait times and attempts to hide scheduling flaws were "outrageous and inexcusable."
"We are very clear-eyed about the problems that are still there," Obama said. "And those problems require us to regain the trust of our veterans and live up to our vision of a VA that is more effective and more efficient and that truly puts veterans first. And I will not be satisfied until that happens."
Obama promised "a new culture of accountability" under new Secretary Bob McDonald. "Bob doesn't play," Obama said.
He announced steps to strengthen access to mental health care by members of the military, to improve the transition for those leaving the military from care administered by the Defense Department to that run by Veterans Affairs, and to foster suicide prevention and better treatments for post-traumatic stress syndrome.
Earlier this month, Obama signed a $16.3 billion law aimed at easing the long waits that tens of thousands of military veterans had endured to get medical care.
The law, a product of rare bipartisanship in the House and Senate, followed reports of veterans dying while awaiting appointments to see VA doctors and of a widespread practice of employees covering up months-long wait times for appointments. In some cases, employees received bonuses based on falsified records.
The VA says investigators have found no proof that delays in care caused any deaths at a VA hospital in Phoenix.
Many legionnaires attending the convention remain skeptical about whether the president's words will become transformative actions, as evidenced by the tepid applause his remarks received.
"I have a friend that has been waiting for about 12 years," said Carol Barker, District 14 commander for the American Legion. "They've come up with excuse after excuse."
Frank Stancil, adjutant of the American Legion Department of North Carolina, said he was willing to give Obama the benefit of the doubt.
"I've got renewed hope because he said it. I believe a person by their word. Proof in time," Stancil said.
Hagan said that the Obama administration needs to do more to regain the trust of veterans.
She announced Tuesday that the administration is moving forward on her request for temporary medical space at the Fayetteville VA Medical Center, which has some of the longest wait times nationwide for veterans seeking medical care. Two facilities – one in Jacksonville and one in Fayetteville – will provide primary and mental health care services, she said.
"These leases are just one symptom of a much larger problem and demonstrate the need for a complete change from the culture of delay and excuses at the VA," Hagan said in a statement.
Republican U.S. Senate candidate Thom Tillis jumped on Obama's visit to criticize Hagan's efforts on behalf of veterans.
"Kay Hagan and President Obama have broken their promises to our veterans, allowing the issues plaguing the VA to get significantly worse under their watch," Tillis said in a statement.
Moving beyond the steps included in the law, Obama planned to take executive actions that do the following:
- Automatically enroll military personnel who are receiving care for mental health conditions and are leaving the service in a program that transfers them to a new care team in the VA.
- Undertake a study designed to detect whether people show signs of being vulnerable to suicide or post-traumatic stress syndrome.
- Spends $34.4 million in a VA suicide prevention study and about $80 million on a program to treat diseases, including post-traumatic stress syndrome.
Obama also announced a partnership with lenders such as Wells Fargo Bank, CitiMortgage, Bank of America, Ocwen Loan Servicing and Quicken Loans to make it easier for active-duty service members to obtain mortgage interest rate reductions.