President Barack Obama promised to “do right” by veterans Thursday, as he signed a $16.3 billion bill designed to address some of the most pressing problems facing the Veterans Administration health care system.
“We have a sacred obligation to serve you as you served us, an obligation that doesn’t end with your tour of duty,” Obama said in remarks at Fort Belvoir in Virginia.
The bill includes $10 billion to pay for veterans to go outside the VA system if they are facing long wait times or live far from a VA facility and $6.3 billion to set up 27 new clinics and hire doctors, nurses, and other medical staff.
“This will not and cannot be the end of our effort,” President Obama said. “Even as we focus on the urgent reforms we need at the VA right now, we cannot lose sight of our long term goals for our service members and veterans.”
Obama also took time in his remarks to again chastise the Senate for not confirming his nominees to positions within the VA. The three nominees have been waiting more than eight months to be confirmed, and one has been waiting more than a year. “Don’t have time for politics, they need these public servants on the job right now,” he said.
Veterans groups have been clamoring for substantive action since April, when a retired VA doctor reported that more than 40 veterans died while waiting for care through the Phoenix VA system. Those veterans and many others had been placed onto so-called “secret” waiting lists that kept them from showing up in wait time statistics. VA Secretary Eric Shinseki was ultimately forced to resign over the scandal, although these problems have existed since the middle of the George W. Bush administration.
An investigation by the VA Inspector General uncovered systemic problems with the scheduling system that affect thousands of veterans around the country. 1,700 veterans were found to be waiting for care without being on any official waiting list at the Phoenix VA system.
“We need to get the access issues under control. I believe the care veterans receive through the VA is the best, especially for specialized care,” Garry Augustine, Executive Director of Disabled American Veterans, told msnbc. “I’m encouraged that Congress passed the legislation and gave it to the President to sign, so that this can be the first step towards fixing the VA.”
Paul Rieckhoff, CEO and co-founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America also praised the legislation. “This new law will support countless veterans nationwide and is a good first step toward healing the VA after a disastrous last few years. IAVA members from across the country are pleased to see Democrats and Republicans finally working together to put serving our veterans before politics,” he said in a statement.
Passing the bill was one of the last things Congress did before leaving for a five week vacation, but negotiations between the House and Senate had threatened to derail efforts to reach a compromise before the August recess
“In a dysfunctional Congress, I’m glad we accomplished something significant for veterans,” Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, who co-sponsored the Senate’s version of the bill, said in a statement. “This legislation will go a long way toward ending unacceptably long waiting times for veterans to access health care and allow the VA the resources to hire the doctors, nurses and other medical staff it needs to address these problems over the long term.”