Obama's Latest VA Proposals Anger Jeff Miller
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This week, President Barack Obama turned his attention to improving federal veterans care, but his new proposals are drawing fire from the chairman of the U.S. House Veterans Affairs Committee.
Obama appeared at the American Legion annual meeting in Charlotte, N.C., on Tuesday in which he trotted out his plan to reform the U.S. Veterans Affairs department. In recent months, the VA department was rocked after revelations that medical centers altered wait lists for veterans seeking treatment. Earlier this summer, U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned his position.
Despite this record, Obama insisted his administration had a good record on veterans issues.
“Working together, we have made real progress,” Obama said in his speech to the American Legion. “Think about it. Working with the Legion and other veterans service organizations, we’ve been able to accomplish historic increases to veterans funding. We’ve protected veterans health care from Washington politics with advanced appropriations. We’ve been able to make VA benefits available to more than 2 million veterans who didn't have them before, including more Vietnam vets who were exposed to Agent Orange. We’ve dedicated major new resources for mental health care. We’ve helped more than 1 million veterans and their families pursue their education under the Post-9/11 GI Bill.
“But what we’ve come to learn is that the misconduct we've seen at too many facilities -- with long wait times and veterans denied care, and folks cooking the books -- is outrageous and inexcusable,” Obama added.
Insisting newly confirmed U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald was bringing a “new culture of accountability,” Obama insisted his team was working on cleaning up the department.
“I want you to know, directly from me, is that we're focused on this at the highest levels,” Obama said. “We are going to get to the bottom of these problems. We're going to fix what is wrong. We're going to do right by you, and we are going to do right by your families. And that is a solemn pledge and commitment that I’m making to you here.
“Already we're making sure that those responsible for manipulating or falsifying records are held accountable,” Obama continued. “We're reaching out to veterans -- more than a quarter million so far -- to get them off wait lists and into clinics. We're moving ahead with reforms at the Veterans Health Administration.”
Obama noted that he signed a reform bill earlier in the month which was backed by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., the chairmen of their respective chambers’ Veterans Affairs Committees. The new law sends $17 billion to help VA medical facilities over the next three years, including designating $10 billion for veterans to seek private care if dealing with extended waits at VA medical centers. Veterans who live more than 40 miles from a VA medical center will also be eligible for private care. The agreement also designates $5 billion to add more medical personnel to VA centers.
On Tuesday, Obama said he would launch 19 new executive orders to help the VA treat veterans battling mental illness. “We're expanding suicide prevention training across the military and the VA, so colleagues and clinicians can spot the warning signs and encourage our troops and veterans to seek help,” Obama said. “We'll improve access to care, with more peer support -- veterans counseling veterans -- at VA hospitals and clinics. We're calling on Congress to help us ensure that our troops get coverage for mental health care that's on par with the coverage for other medical conditions. And we’re going to make it easier for service members being treated for mental health conditions to continue their care as they transition to the VA, so automatically connecting them with the support they need, making sure they don't lose access to any medications they may be taking."
Obama also announced a proposal to work with “some of America's biggest banks and financial institutions” to help veterans obtain better mortgage rates and partner up with other financial institutions to cap student loans for veterans at 6 percent.
“We're going to help more of our troops and military families own their own home without a crushing debt,” Obama said.
Miller quickly weighed in, insisting the Obama administration wasn’t doing enough to restore America’s faith in the VA department.
“President Obama’s actions today fall far short of what’s needed to regain the trust of America’s veterans,” Miller said. “VA’s problems festered because administration officials ignored or denied the department’s challenges at every turn. In fact, I wrote to the president more than a year ago about a string of serious VA health-care problems, lapses in employee integrity and failures in accountability, but the president didn’t bother to respond. Instead, I received a boilerplate letter from then-Sec. Eric Shinseki that assured me everything was OK at the department – an assertion that couldn’t have been further from the truth. Additionally, White House claims that VA is improving when it comes to accountability, transparency and protecting whistle-blowers don’t add up, especially when no one has been fired as a result of the VA scandal, the department is still sitting on 113 outstanding information requests from the House Committee on Veterans Affairs and VA whistle-blowers who tried to expose problems are still enduring retaliation.
“What we need from the president right now is more follow-through and less flash when it comes to helping veterans,” Miller added. “A good place for him to start would be to meet with family members and veterans who have been struck by the VA scandal, order the department to cooperate with the congressional committees investigating VA, and force DoD and VA to work together to establish a joint electronic health record integrated across all DoD and VA components.”
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