(Updates with VA inspector general report starting in first paragraph.)
By Roger Runningen and Angela Greiling Keane
Aug. 26 (Bloomberg) -- President Barack Obama pledged improved mental-health care for U.S. military veterans and greater accountability as a new report detailed poor medical service at the scandal-scarred Department of Veterans Affairs.
Speaking to members of the American Legion, the largest veterans service organization, Obama said he’s committed to taking action to “regain the trust” of the nation’s veterans by making their health-care system work.
As many as 93 VA facilities are being investigated for manipulating data to hide lengthy wait times, according to a report today from the VA Office of Inspector General. The inspector general said it’s coordinating with the Department of Justice and Federal Bureau of Investigation to determine whether schedulers were ordered to obstruct the probes.
“We’re focused on this at the highest levels,” Obama said at the 2.3 million-member Legion’s 96th annual national convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. “We’re going to get to the bottom of these problems. We’re going to do right by you and do right by your families.”
The president has sought to make amends with veterans after revelations of substandard and delayed care at VA medical facilities. He has previously said he wants the agency to provide better health care and reduce the wait in the handling of disability claims, and in today’s speech he offered some specifics on achieving those goals.
The VA facilities were investigated after House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, a Florida Republican, said as many as 40 veterans died while awaiting care at a Phoenix VA hospital. Today’s inspector general report declined to blame any of the deaths on a lack of timely care.
The report identified 3,500 veterans who were left off official waiting lists and “at risk of never obtaining their requested or necessary appointments.” Dozens more experienced “unacceptable and troubling lapses” in care, it said.
Earlier this month Obama signed a bill passed by Congress that will create 27 new VA medical facilities and expand care for veterans at non-VA hospitals and clinics. The measure also gives the VA secretary greater power to fire senior agency executives.
The new VA secretary, former Procter & Gamble Co. Chief Executive Officer Robert McDonald, accompanied Obama to the Legion convention. McDonald replaced retired General Eric Shinseki, who resigned in May following the release of an inspector general’s report that found widespread mismanagement at the department, including records being falsified to hide long waiting times for medical treatment.
Obama called the misconduct “outrageous.”
The VA this week will unveil a new recruiting campaign aimed at attracting “the best and the brightest medical professionals” to work for the agency, according to a fact sheet released before the president’s speech.
The president focused on expanding mental-health services for veterans, including treating post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide-prevention programs.
Obama said he was taking executive actions designed to ensure that those service members leaving the military who have been receiving mental-health care will continue to get such help. Also, the VA will adopt a new policy to enable veterans to maintain access to mental-health medication they were prescribed while in the service.
More veterans’ health records will be moved to electronic form, allowing better access by the Defense Department and the VA, which will help offer more efficient care, he said.
The president highlighted a reduction in homelessness among veterans by one-third, or 25,000 people, in the past four years. To continue that effort, the administration announced partnerships in five cities to further reduce the number of veterans without homes, with services such as job training available to them.
The plan includes agreements with lenders to make it easier for active-duty troops to reduce their mortgage-interest rates and monthly payments.
The banks in the program, which include Bank of America Corp., Citigroup Inc. and Wells Fargo & Co., have pledged to focus on better informing veterans of financial services for which they qualify, the White House said.
American Legion members are “cautiously optimistic” about the changes occurring at the VA, the national commander, Daniel Dellinger, said in a phone interview before the speech.
“Just putting money toward it isn’t the answer,” said Dellinger, 64, a Vietnam veteran who lives in Vienna, Virginia. “It’s a cultural change that’s needed,” and the Legion is “anxiously awaiting when that’s going to be unfolded.”
Senator Kay Hagan of North Carolina, a Democrat seeking re-election this November against Republican challenger Thom Tillis, is among the lawmakers who has criticized Obama on the veterans-care issue. She said in an Aug. 22 statement that “the Obama administration has not yet done enough to earn the lasting trust of our veterans and implement real and permanent reforms at the VA.”
Hagan, who co-sponsored the bill to overhaul the VA, greeted Obama at the airport in Charlotte and spoke to the Legion convention after the president.