FORT BELVOIR, Va. – President Obama signed a bill that will inject more than $16 billion into the beleaguered Department of Veterans Affairs, money that will help an agency beset by scandal improve access to medical care for veterans.
“As a country we have a sacred obligation to serve you as well as you served us,” Obama, flanked by flags and members of Congress, said. It is, he said, “an obligation that doesn’t end with your tour of duty.”
In one of its last actions before August recess, the Senate passed the bill 91 to 3 in an unusual, of late, show of bipartistan support. The House passed the bill in July.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), was drafted after a scandal came to light involving veterans being put on secret lists to mask long wait times for medical appointments.
The legislation will attempt to provide veterans with timely access to medical care by providing them with a card that allows them to seek care from a civilian doctor if they have waited more than 30 days for an appointment at the VA. The $10 billion provision will let a veteran who lives more than 40 miles from a VA medical center seek private medical care.
The legislation allows for the hiring of more doctors and medical staff to ease the demands of a skyrocketing veteran population. Even with increased budget allocations for the VA, the demand outstrips the current resources.
An interim independent report released in May by the VA Inspector General found officials falsified records at a Phoenix medical center in order to hide wait times. According to the report, 1,700 veterans were kept on such lists. Veterans waited an average of 115 days for an initial primary care appointment. The report called these issues “a systemic problem nationwide.”
Former Veterans Affairs secretary Erik Shinseki resigned in May in the wake of the allegations. The Senate last month unanimously confirmed former Procter and Gamble chief Robert McDonald as VA secretary.
“Over the last few months, we’ve discovered some inexcusable misconduct at some VA health-care facilities,” Obama said. “This is wrong. It’s outrageous. And working together, we set out to fix it and do right by our veterans.”
Obama said the department and administration have started reaching out to veterans who are on the wait lists to match them with care, have fired people and are investigating numerous allegations of misconduct.
Obama and members of Congress said one of the most important provisions of the bill is free: It allows McDonald free reign to fire people who are not doing their jobs or have engaged in unethical behavior.
If an employee does not meet standards of conduct, “You should be fired, period,” Obama said. Whistleblowers, Obama said, should be protected.
“If you blow the whistle,” Obama said, “you should be thanked. You should be protected for doing the right thing. You shouldn’t be ignored and you certainly shouldn’t be punished.”
Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.) said that Obama's signing of the bill “opens up a huge door to move forward” and help veterans. But it is “just a step” in what will be a long process of changing the VA, she said.
“The gaming that’s going on inside of this process is unbelievable,” Walorski, a member of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, said of what she’s learned about VA wait times. She met McDonald for the first time and told him that updating the department’s technology and fixing problems related to it is a top priority. But the fact that McDonald will be able to fire bad actors may be the biggest gain going forward.
“He has the tools to fire,” Walorski said. “He has the tools to clean this up.”
The bill will also continue a program supporting veterans with traumatic brain injuries and enhance care for service members who were sexually assaulted.
Obama continued his habit of railing against Republicans, urging Congress to confirm a number of nominees to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
"The Senate doesn't seem to move very fast," Obama said. "Our veterans don't have time for politics."