Obama Says Law Will Help End ‘Inexcusable’ VA Misconduct

President Barack Obama signed a bill into law that gives the secretary of the Veterans Affairs Department new powers to fire agency executives for misconduct, saying it will ensure a “culture of accountability.”

The law also permits veterans to seek private health care if waiting times at a government facility are too long and authorizes spending of $17 billion over five years to expand medical care and reduce case backlogs.

In remarks to an audience that included service members preparing to leave the military, Obama called mismanagement at the VA “inexcusable.”

The law will “make sure veterans get the care when they need it,” the president said at Fort Belvoir, an Army installation 22 miles (35 kilometers) south of Washington.

The new law is a result of a scandal over management at the agency that provides services for about 9 million veterans of the U.S. military. A report by the U.S. House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs found mismanagement, deaths of at least 35 veterans while awaiting care in Phoenix, secret waiting lists and falsified data intended to hide long wait times.

Some veterans waited an average of 115 days for their first primary care appointment, according to the committee, even as some VA executives collected bonuses. The Federal Bureau of Investigation is conducting a criminal probe, in addition to separate reviews by the agency’s inspector general and the White House.

Scandal Fallout

The scandal forced the resignation of former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki in May. Bob McDonald, former Procter & Gamble Co. chief executive officer, was confirmed by the Senate as the new secretary late last month and sworn in. He travels to the Phoenix facility later today.

About $5 billion of the funding is earmarked for hiring additional doctors, nurses and related health-care professionals. The department is ordered to lease 27 new major medical facilities -- hospitals or clinics -- in 18 states and Puerto Rico to expand care for veterans.

New authority is granted to the secretary to make it easier to demote or fire senior executives for poor performance or misconduct.

Veterans who have to wait more than 30 days for an appointment would be able to see a private doctor or go to a community health center or a Defense Department medical facility instead, a new program estimated to cost about $10 billion. The 30-day threshold also applies to veterans who live more than 40 miles from a VA facility.

Expanded Coverage

The department would issue a “Veterans Choice Card” similar to an insurance card to be presented to non-VA health care providers to identify the veteran and to verify eligibility.

“When veterans are denied care, it’s a priority deserving of bipartisan attention, and this legislation will help ensure the VA lives up to the promises that we made to our veterans. We owe them no less,” Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said in a statement.

An internal audit in June showed that more than 120,000 veterans hadn’t received a medical appointment or were waiting more than 90 days for care. That number was reduced to about 42,400 by July 1, VA data show.

The Veterans Health Administration says it’s gotten more than 217,000 veterans off wait lists and into clinics as of July 31. The number of veterans on the electronic waiting list is down 40 percent in a two-month period, it said on its Web site.

The VA has a $160 billion budget and 1,700 hospitals, clinics and related facilities that constitute the nation’s largest integrated health-care system.

Under one provision, veterans and their dependents will qualify for in-state tuition at public universities regardless of residency, reflecting administration and congressional promises to make college more affordable.

The bill is H.R. 3230, the Veterans’ Access to Care through Choice, Accountability, and Transparency Act of 2014.

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