Full Text Obama Presidency August 7, 2014: President Barack Obama’s Remarks at the Signing of the VA Bill, the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act

POLITICAL TRANSCRIPTS

OBAMA PRESIDENCY & THE 113TH CONGRESS:

Remarks by the President at the Signing of the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act

Source:  WH, 8-7-14

Wallace Theater
Ft. Belvoir, Virginia

12:05 P.M. EDT

THE PRESIDENT:  Hello, Fort Belvoir!  (Applause.)  Everybody, have a seat.  I think I’m going to take Sergeant Major McGruder on the road.  (Laughter.)  I’m just going to have him introduce me wherever I go.  (Laughter.)  He got me excited, and I’m being — I get introduced all the time.  So thank you, James, for your incredible service to our country.  Give James a big round of applause.  (Applause.)

I also want to say a big thanks to America’s new Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Bob McDonald, who is here.  Stand up, Bob.  (Applause.)  As some of you may know, Bob headed up one of the biggest, most successful companies in the world.  But he also was a West Point grad, also a Ranger who served valiantly on behalf of his country.  And this a labor of love for him, and he has hit the ground running.  He’s heading out to VA hospitals and clinics around the country, starting with Phoenix tomorrow.  So thank you, Bob, for accepting this charge and this challenge, and making sure that we’re doing right by our veterans.  I know you’re going to do a great job.  Really proud of him.  (Applause.)

I want to thank all the members of Congress who are here today, and I especially want to thank those who led the fight to give Bob and the VA more of the resources and flexibility that they need to make sure every veteran has access to the care and benefits that they have earned.  Senator Bernie Sanders, Senator Richard Burr, Representative Mike Michaud, Representative Jeff Miller — give them a big round of applause.  (Applause.)  Thank you.  That’s for the good work.  (Applause.)

And we are all grateful to our outstanding veterans service organizations for all the work that they do on behalf of our veterans and their families.  So thank you very much to all the veterans service organizations.  Most of all, I want to thank General Buchanan and Sergeant Major Turnbull, and all of you who serve here at Fort Belvoir.

For nearly a century, this base has helped keep America strong and secure.  Seventy years ago, troops from here –- the 29th Infantry Division, the Blue and Gray -– were some of the first to storm Omaha Beach.  And in recent years, many of you have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.  And you’ve risked your lives on multiple tours to defend our nation.  And as a country, we have a sacred obligation to serve you as well as you’ve served us -– an obligation that doesn’t end with your tour of duty.

Every day, hundreds of thousands of dedicated public servants at the VA help us honor that commitment.  At VA hospitals across America, you’ve got doctors and nurses who are delivering world-class care to America’s veterans.  You’ve got millions of veterans and their families who are profoundly grateful for the good work that is done at the VA.  And as Commander-in-Chief, I’m grateful, too.

But over the last few months, we’ve discovered some inexcusable misconduct at some VA health care facilities — stories of our veterans denied the care they needed, long wait times being covered up, cooking the books.  This is wrong.  It was outrageous.  And working together, we set out to fix it and do right by our veterans across the board, no matter how long it took.

And we’ve already taken the first steps to change the way the VA does business.  We’ve held people accountable for misconduct.  Some have already been relieved of their duties, and investigations are ongoing.  We’ve reached out to more than 215,000 veterans so far to make sure that we’re getting them off wait lists and into clinics both inside and outside the VA system.

We’re moving ahead with urgent reforms, including stronger management and leadership and oversight.  And we’re instituting a critical culture of accountability — rebuilding our leadership team, starting at the top with Secretary McDonald.  And one of his first acts is that he’s directed all VA health care facilities to hold town halls to hear directly from the veterans that they serve to make sure that we’re hearing honest assessments about what’s going on.

Now, in a few minutes, we’ll take another step forward when I sign into law the VA reform bill that was passed overwhelmingly, with bipartisan majorities — and that doesn’t happen often in Congress.  It’s a good deal.  (Laughter and applause.)

This bill covers a lot of ground — from expanding survivor benefits and educational opportunities, to improving care for veterans struggling with traumatic brain injury and for victims of sexual assault.  But today, I want to focus on the ways this bill will help us ensure that veterans have access to the care that they’ve earned.

First of all, this will give the VA more of the resources that it needs.  It will help the VA hire more doctors and more nurses and staff more clinics.  As a new generation of veterans returns home from war and transitions into civilian life, we have to make sure the VA system can keep pace with that new demand.  Keep in mind that I have increased funding for the VA since I came into office by extraordinary amounts.  But we also have extraordinary numbers of veterans coming home.  And so the demand, even though we’ve increased the VA budget, is still higher than the resources that we’ve got.  This bill helps to address that.

Second, for veterans who can’t get timely care through the VA, this bill will help them get the care they need someplace else.  And this is particularly important for veterans who are in more remote areas, in rural areas.  If you live more than 40 miles from a VA facility, or if VA doctors can’t see you within a reasonable amount of time, you’ll have the chance to see a doctor outside the VA system.

Now finally, we’re giving the VA Secretary more authority to hold people accountable.  We’ve got to give Bob the authority so that he can move quickly to remove senior executives who fail to meet the standards of conduct and competence that the American people demand.  If you engage in an unethical practice, if you cover up a serious problem, you should be fired.  Period.  It shouldn’t be that difficult.  (Applause.)  And if you blow the whistle on an unethical practice, or bring a problem to the attention of higher-ups, you should be thanked.  You should be protected for doing the right thing.  (Applause.)  You shouldn’t be ignored, and you certainly shouldn’t be punished.

“To care for him [or her] who shall have borne the battle.”  That’s the heart of the VA’s motto.  That’s what the bill I’m about to sign will help us achieve.  But I want to be clear about something:  This will not and cannot be the end of our effort.  Implementing this law will take time.  It’s going to require focus on the part of all of us.  And even as we focus on the urgent reforms we need at the VA right now, particularly around wait lists and the health care system, we can’t lose sight of our long-term goals for our servicemembers and our veterans.

The good news is, we’ve cut the disability claims backlog by more than half.  But let’s now eliminate the backlog.  Let’s get rid of it.  (Applause.)  The good news is, we’ve poured major resources into improving mental health care.  But now, let’s make sure our veterans actually get the care they need when they need it.  The good news is, we’ve helped to get thousands of homeless veterans off the street, made an unprecedented effort to end veterans’ homelessness.  We should have zero tolerance for that.  But we’ve got to — still more work to do in cities and towns across America to get more veterans into the homes they deserve.

We’ve helped more than a million veterans and their spouses and children go to college through the post-9/11 GI bill.  (Applause.)  But now, we’ve got to help even more of them earn their educations, and make sure that they’re getting a good bargain in the schools they enroll in.

We’ve rallied companies to hire hundreds of thousands of veterans and their spouses.  That’s the good news.  With the help of Jill Biden and Michelle Obama — two pretty capable women.  (Laughter.)  They know what they’re doing, and nobody says no to them, including me.  (Laughter.)  But now, we’ve got to help more of our highly skilled veterans find careers in this new economy.

So America has to do right by all who serve under our proud flag.  And Congress needs to do more, also.  I urge the Senate, once again, to finally confirm my nominee for Assistant Secretary for Policy at the VA, Linda Schwartz; my nominee to lead the Board of Veterans Appeals, Constance Tobias; my nominee for CFO, Helen Tierney.  Each of them have been waiting for months for a yes-or-no vote — in Constance’s case for more than a year.

They’re ready to serve.  They’re ready to get to work.  It’s not that hard.  It didn’t used to be this hard to just go ahead and get somebody confirmed who is well qualified.  Nobody says they’re not.  It’s just the Senate doesn’t seem to move very fast.  As soon as the Senate gets back in September, they should act to put these outstanding public servants in place.  Our veterans don’t have time for politics.  They need these public servants on the job right now.  (Applause.)

So let me wrap up by saying two months ago, I had the chance to spend some time with some of America’s oldest veterans at Omaha Beach.  Some of you may have seen on television the celebration, the commemoration of those incredible days, the 70th anniversary of D-Day.  And this is my second visit to democracy’s beachhead.  It’s the second time I’ve gone as President.  And it’s a place where it’s impossible not to be moved by the courage and the sacrifice of free men and women who volunteer to lay down their lives for people they’ve never met, ideals that they can’t live without.  That’s why they’re willing to do these things.

And some of these folks that you met, they were 18 at the time.  Some of them were lying about their age.  They were 16, landing either at the beach or sometimes behind the lines.  The casualty rates were unbelievable.  Being there brought back memories of my own grandfather, who marched in Patton’s Army, and then came home.  And like so many veterans of his generation, they went to school and got married and raised families.  And he eventually helped to raise me.

And on that visit to Normandy, I brought some of today’s servicemembers with me because I wanted to introduce them to the veterans of D-Day and to show the veterans of D-Day that their legacy is in good hands, that there’s a direct line between the sacrifices then and the sacrifices that folks have made in remote places today.  Because in more than a decade of war, today’s men and women in uniform — all of you — you’ve met every mission we’ve asked of you.

Today, our troops continue to serve and risk their lives in Afghanistan.  It continues to be a difficult and dangerous mission, as we were tragically reminded again this week in the attack that injured a number of our coalition troops and took the life of a dedicated American soldier, Major General Harold Greene.  Our prayers are with the Greene family, as they are with all the Gold Star families and those who have sacrificed so much for our nation.

Four months from now, our combat mission in Afghanistan will be complete.  Our longest war will come to an honorable end.  In the years to come, many from this generation will step out of uniform, and their legacy will be secure.  But whether or not this country properly repays their heroism, properly repays their patriotism, their service and their sacrifice, that’s in our hands.

I’m committed to seeing that we fulfill that commitment.  Because the men and women of this generation, this 9/11 Generation of servicemembers, are the leaders we need for our time — as community leaders and business leaders, I hope maybe some leaders in our politics, as well.

From the Greatest Generation to the 9/11 Generation, America’s heroes have answered the call to serve.  I have no greater honor than serving as your President and Commander-in-Chief.  And I have no greater privilege than the chance to help make sure that our country keeps the promises that we’ve made to everybody who signs up to serve.  And as long as I hold this office, we’re going to spend each and every day working to do right by you and your families.  I’m grateful to you.

God bless you.  God bless America.  With that, I am going to sign this bill.  Thank you very much, everybody.  (Applause.)

(The bill is signed.)  (Applause.)

END
12:18 P.M. EDT

Political Musings June 5, 2014: Obama hits new approval ratings poll lows on foreign policy, economy, Benghazi

POLITICAL MUSINGS

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OBAMA PRESIDENCY & THE 113TH CONGRESS:

OP-EDS & ARTICLES

A new ABC News/Washington Post poll released on Tuesday, June 3, 2014 gives President Barack Obama the lowest marks of presidency on foreign policy and the handling of the Benghazi Affair. The presidency also keeps getting low approval ratings…Continue

Political Musings May 27, 2014: Obama overcompensates Memorial Day honors as Veterans Affairs scandal heats up

POLITICAL MUSINGS

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OBAMA PRESIDENCY & THE 113TH CONGRESS:

OP-EDS & ARTICLES

Obama overcompensates Memorial Day honors as Veterans Affairs scandal heats up

By Bonnie K. Goodman

Full Text Obama Presidency May 21, 2014: President Barack Obama’s Statement on the Department of Veterans Affairs Scandal

POLITICAL TRANSCRIPTS

OBAMA PRESIDENCY & THE 113TH CONGRESS:

Statement by the President on Veterans Health Care

Source: WH, 5-21-14 

Watch the Video

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

10:58 A.M. EDT

THE PRESIDENT:  Good morning, everybody.  I just met with Secretary Shinseki and Rob Nabors, who I’ve temporarily assigned to work with Secretary Shinseki and the VA.  We focused on two issues:  the allegations of misconduct at Veterans Affairs facilities, and our broader mission of caring for our veterans and their families.

As Commander-in-Chief, I have the honor of standing with our men and women in uniform at every step of their service: from the moment they take their oath, to when our troops prepare to deploy, to Afghanistan — where they put their lives on the line for our security, to their bedside, as our wounded warriors fight to recover from terrible injuries.  The most searing moments of my presidency have been going to Walter Reed, or Bethesda, or Bagram and meeting troops who have left a part of themselves on the battlefield.  And their spirit and their determination to recover and often to serve again is an inspiration.

So these men and women and their families are the best that our country has to offer.  They’ve done their duty, and they ask nothing more than that this country does ours — that we uphold our sacred trust to all who have served.

So when I hear allegations of misconduct — any misconduct — whether it’s allegations of VA staff covering up long wait times or cooking the books, I will not stand for it.  Not as Commander-in-Chief, but also not as an American.  None of us should.  So if these allegations prove to be true, it is dishonorable, it is disgraceful, and I will not tolerate it — period.

Here’s what I discussed with Secretary Shinseki this morning.  First, anybody found to have manipulated or falsified records at VA facilities has to be held accountable.  The inspector general at the VA has launched investigations into the Phoenix VA and other facilities.  And some individuals have already been put on administrative leave.  I know that people are angry and want a swift reckoning.  I sympathize with that.  But we have to let the investigators do their job and get to the bottom of what happened.  Our veterans deserve to know the facts.  Their families deserve to know the facts.  And once we know the facts, I assure you — if there is misconduct, it will be punished.

Second, I want to know the full scope of this problem.  And that’s why I ordered Secretary Shinseki to investigate.  Today, he updated me on his review, which is looking not just at the Phoenix facility, but also VA facilities across the nation.  And I expect preliminary results from that review next week.

Third, I’ve directed Rob Nabors to conduct a broader review of the Veterans Health Administration — the part of the VA that delivers health care to our veterans.  And Rob is going to Phoenix today.  Keep in mind, though, even if we had not heard reports out of this Phoenix facility or other facilities, we all know that it often takes too long for veterans to get the care that they need.  That’s not a new development.  It’s been a problem for decades and it’s been compounded by more than a decade of war.

That’s why, when I came into office, I said we would systematically work to fix these problems, and we have been working really hard to address them.  My attitude is, for folks who have been fighting on the battlefield, they should not have to fight a bureaucracy at home to get the care that they’ve earned.

So the presumption has always been we’ve got to do better.  And Rob’s review will be a comprehensive look at the Veterans Health Administration’s approach currently to access to care.  I want to know what’s working.  I want to know what is not working.  And I want specific recommendations on how VA can up their game.  And I expect that full report from Rob next month.

Number four — I said that I expect everyone involved to work with Congress, which has an important oversight role to play.  And I welcome Congress as a partner in our efforts not just to address the current controversies, but to make sure we’re doing right by our veterans across the board.  I served on the Veterans Affairs Committee when I was in the Senate, and it was one of the proudest pieces of business that I did in the legislature.  And I know the folks over there care deeply about our veterans.

It is important that our veterans don’t become another political football, especially when so many of them are receiving care right now.  This is an area where Democrats and Republicans should always be working together.

Which brings me to my final point.  Even as we get to the bottom of what happened at Phoenix and other facilities, all of us, whether here in Washington or all across the country, have to stay focused on the larger mission, which is upholding our sacred trust to all of our veterans, bringing the VA system into the 21st century — which is not an easy task.

We have made progress over the last five years.  We’ve made historic investments in our veterans.  We’ve boosted VA funding to record levels.  And we created consistency through advanced appropriations so that veterans organizations knew their money would be there regardless of political wrangling in Washington.

We made VA benefits available to more than 2 million veterans who did not have it before — delivering disability pay to more Vietnam vets exposed to Agent Orange; making it easier for veterans with post-traumatic stress and mental health issues and traumatic brain injury to get treatment; and improving care for women veterans.

Because of these steps and the influx of new veterans requiring services added in many cases to wait times, we launched an all-out war on the disability claims backlog.  And in just the past year alone, we’ve slashed that backlog by half.

Of course, we’re not going to let up, because it’s still too high.  We’re going to keep at it until we eliminate the backlog once and for all.  Meanwhile, we’re also reducing homelessness among our veterans.  We’re helping veterans and their families — more than a million so far — pursue their education under the Post-9/11 GI Bill.  We’re stepping up our efforts to help our newest veterans get the skills and training to find jobs when they come home.  And along with Michelle and Jill Biden and Joining Forces, we’ve helped hundreds of thousands of veterans find a job.  More veterans are finding work and veterans unemployment, although still way too high, is coming down.

The point is, caring for our veterans is not an issue that popped up in recent weeks.  Some of the problems with respect to how veterans are able to access the benefits that they’ve earned, that’s not a new issue.  That’s an issue that I was working on when I was running for the United States Senate.  Taking care of our veterans and their families has been one of the causes of my presidency, and it is something that all of us have to be involved with and have to be paying attention to.

We ended the war in Iraq.  And as our war in Afghanistan ends, and as our newest veterans are coming home, the demands on the VA are going to grow.  So we’re going to have to redouble our efforts to get it right as a nation.  And we have to be honest that there are and will continue to be areas where we’ve got to do a lot better.

So today, I want every veteran to know we are going to fix whatever is wrong.  And so long as I have the privilege of serving as Commander-in-Chief, I’m going to keep on fighting to deliver the care and the benefits and the opportunities that your families deserve, now and for decades to come.  That is a commitment to which I feel a sacred duty to maintain.

So with that, I’m going to take two questions.  I’m going to take Jim Kuhnhenn at AP, first of all.

Q    Thank you, Mr. President.  As you said, this is a cause of your presidency.  You ran on this issue — you mentioned it.  Why was it allowed to get to this stage where you actually had potentially 40 veterans who died while waiting for treatment?  That’s an extreme circumstance.  Why did it get to that?

THE PRESIDENT:  Well, we have to find out, first of all, what exactly happened.  And I don’t want to get ahead of the IG report or the other investigations that are being done.  And I think it is important to recognize that the wait times generally — what the IG indicated so far at least — is the wait times were for folks who may have had chronic conditions, were seeking their next appointment but may have already received service.  It was not necessarily a situation where they were calling for emergency services.  And the IG indicated that he did not see a link between the wait and them actually dying.

That does not excuse the fact that the wait times in general are too long in some facilities.  And so what we have to do is find out what exactly happened.  We have to find out how can we realistically cut some of these wait times.  There has been a large influx of new veterans coming in.  We’ve got a population of veterans that is also aging as part of the baby boom population.  And we’ve got to make sure that the scheduling system, the access to the system, that all those things are in sync.  There are parts of the VA health care system that have performed well.

And what we’ve seen is, for example, satisfaction rates in many facilities with respect to many providers has been high.  But what we’re seeing is that, in terms of how folks get scheduled, how they get in the system, there are still too many problems.  I’m going to get a complete report from it.  It is not, as a consequence, people not caring about the problem, but there are 85 million appointments scheduled among veterans during the course of a year.  That’s a lot of appointments.  And that means that we’ve got to have a system that is built in order to be able to take those folks in in a smooth fashion, that they know what to expect, that it’s reliable, and it means that the VA has got to set standards that it can meet.  And if it can’t meet them right now, then it’s going to have to set realistic goals about how they improve the system overall.

Q    Does the responsibility ultimately rest with General Shinseki?

THE PRESIDENT:  You know, the responsibility for things always rests ultimately with me, as the President and Commander-in-Chief.  Ric Shinseki has been a great soldier.  He himself is a disabled veteran.  And nobody cares more about our veterans than Ric Shinseki.  So if you ask me how do I think Ric Shinseki has performed overall, I would say that on homelessness, on the 9/11 GI Bill, on working with us to reduce the backlog, across the board he has put his heart and soul into this thing and he has taken it very seriously.

But I have said to Ric — and I said it to him today — I want to see what the results of these reports are and there is going to be accountability.  And I’m going to expect even before the reports are done that we are seeing significant improvement in terms of how the admissions process takes place in all of our VA health care facilities.  So I know he cares about it deeply and he has been a great public servant and a great warrior on behalf of the United States of America.  We’re going to work with him to solve the problem, but I am going to make sure that there is accountability throughout the system after I get the full report.

Steve Holland from Reuters.

Q    Thank you, sir.  Has Secretary Shinseki offered to resign?  And if he’s not to blame, then who is?  And were you caught by surprise by these allegations?

THE PRESIDENT:  Ric Shinseki I think serves this country because he cares deeply about veterans and he cares deeply about the mission.  And I know that Ric’s attitude is if he does not think he can do a good job on this and if he thinks he has let our veterans down, then I’m sure that he is not going to be interested in continuing to serve.  At this stage, Ric is committed to solving the problem and working with us to do it.  And I am going to do everything in my power, using the resources of the White House, to help that process of getting to the bottom of what happened and fixing it.

But I’m also going to be waiting to see what the results of all this review process yields.  I don’t yet know how systemic this is.  I don’t yet know are there a lot of other facilities that have been cooking the books, or is this just an episodic problem.  We know that, essentially, the wait times have been a problem for decades in all kinds of circumstances with respect to the VA — getting benefits, getting health care, et cetera.  Some facilities do better than others.  A couple of years ago, the Veterans Affairs set a goal of 14 days for wait times.  What’s not yet clear to me is whether enough tools were given to make sure that those goals were actually met.

And I won’t know until the full report is put forward as to whether there was enough management follow-up to ensure that those folks on the front lines who were doing scheduling had the capacity to meet those goals; if they were being evaluated for meeting goals that were unrealistic and they couldn’t meet, because either there weren’t enough doctors or the systems weren’t in place or what have you.  We need to find out who was responsible for setting up those guidelines.  So there are going to be a lot of questions that we have to answer.

In the meantime, what I said to Ric today is let’s not wait for the report retrospectively to reach out immediately to veterans who are currently waiting for appointments, to make sure that they are getting better service.  That’s something that we can initiate right now.  We don’t have to wait to find out if there was misconduct to dig in and make sure that we’re upping our game in all of our various facilities.

I do think it is important not just with respect to Ric Shinseki, but with respect to the VA generally, to say that every single day there are people working in the VA who do outstanding work and put everything they’ve got into making sure that our veterans get the care, benefits and services that they need.  And so I do want to close by sending a message out there that there are millions of veterans who are getting really good service from the VA, who are getting really good treatment from the VA.  I know because I get letters from veterans sometimes asking me to write letters of commendation or praise to a doctor or a nurse or a facility that couldn’t have given them better treatment.

And so this is a big system with a lot of really good people in it who care about our veterans deeply.  We have seen the improvements on a whole range of issues like homelessness, like starting to clear the backlog up, like making sure that folks who previously weren’t even eligible for disability because it was a mental health issue or because it was an Agent Orange issue are finally able to get those services.  I don’t want us to lose sight of the fact that there are a lot of folks in the VA who are doing a really good job and working really hard at it.  That does not, on the other hand, excuse the possibility that, number one, we weren’t just — we were not doing a good enough job in terms of providing access to folks who need an appointment for chronic conditions.  Number two, it never excuses the possibility that somebody was trying to manipulate the data in order to look better or make their facility look better.

It is critical to make sure that we have good information in order to make good decisions.  I want people on the front lines, if there’s a problem, to tell me or tell Ric Shinseki, or tell whoever is their superior, that this is a problem.  Don’t cover up a problem.  Do not pretend the problem doesn’t exist.  If you can’t get wait times down to 14 days right now, I want you to let folks up the chain know so that we can solve the problem.  Do we need more doctors?  Do we need a new system in order to make sure that the scheduling and coordination is more effective and more smooth?  Is there more follow-up?

And that’s the thing that right now most disturbs me about the report — the possibility that folks intentionally withheld information that would have helped us fix a problem, because there’s not a problem out there that’s not fixable.  It can’t always be fixed as quickly as everybody would like, but typically we can chip away at these problems.  We’ve seen this with the backlog.  We’ve seen it with veterans homelessness.  We’ve seen it with the Post-9/11 GI Bill.  Initially, there were problems with it.  They got fixed and now it’s operating fairly smoothly.  So problems can be fixed, but folks have to let the people that they’re reporting to know that there is a problem in order for us to fix it.

Q    What about bonuses for those implicated in mismanagement, Mr. President?

THE PRESIDENT:  We’re going to find out.  My attitude is —

Q    Does that upset you?

THE PRESIDENT:  Listen, if somebody has mismanaged or engaged in misconduct, not only do I not want them getting bonuses, I want them punished.  So that’s what we’re going to hopefully find out from the IG report, as well as the audits that are taking place.

END
11:18 A.M. EDT

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