Obama lays out plan to overhaul Veterans Affairs

Speaking to the American Legion, President Obama outlined a series of executive actions to improve health care accessibility, streamline the transition to civilian life, and help military families achieve economic independence.

Charles Dharapak/AP
President Obama speaks about veterans issues at the American Legion’s 96th National Convention at the Charlotte Convention Center in Charlotte, N.C., Tuesday.

President Obama has laid out his strategic plan to improve veterans’ services, which have come under fire in recent months.

Outlined Tuesday at the American Legion convention in Charlotte, N.C., the series of executive actions center on improvements to medical and mental health care accessibility, measures to streamline the transition from active duty to civilian life, and efforts to help military families achieve economic independence.

“As [our veterans] come home we have to meet our responsibilities to them just as they meet their responsibilities to America,” Mr. Obama told the legionnaires. “For me, for our administration, a trust with our veterans is not just a matter of policy it is a moral obligation.”

That trust has been significantly marred by reports of veterans having to wait months for medical care through the Veterans Affairs Department and the revelation that some 40 veterans died while waiting for treatment at the Phoenix VA hospital. While a VA inspector general investigation released Tuesday found no proof that delays in care led to the deaths in Phoenix, the scandal shed light on massive holes in accessibility throughout the VA system.

“What we’ve come to learn is that the misconduct that we have seen at too many facilities with long wait times and veterans denied care, with folks cooking the books, is outrageous and inexcusable,” Obama told conference attendees.

The president has vowed to use executive action to overhaul the VA system in order to ensure that veterans have adequate access to health care when they return to civilian life – a challenge made all the more pressing by the influx of new veterans returning to the US from active duty in Afghanistan.

In a fact sheet, the administration outlined a series of steps designed to reform the VA. Those efforts include: reducing wait times for medical appointments, recruiting additional medical professionals, streamlining electronic health records, and instituting protections for whistleblowers.

One chief priority is suicide prevention. The VA estimates that 22 veterans take their lives each day. The president plans to expand suicide prevention training across the military and the VA system, to expand opportunities for peer counseling, and to institute a mechanism to ensure that service members transitioning to civilian life receive uninterrupted mental health services.

“We have to end this tragedy of suicide among our troops and veterans,” the president said. “As a country we can’t stand idly by on such tragedy.”

Reintegrating veterans into society requires more than acute crisis management. It can be difficult for returning service members to find employment. In 2013, 9 percent of veterans who served on active duty since 9/11 were unemployed, according to the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

Obama touted the administration’s recent efforts, which he said have already helped to bring the overall veteran unemployment rate down to 6.6 percent – which is below the general population rate. He also spelled out new efforts to facilitate the transition of military skills and expertise into civilian certification.

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