Speaking in the midterm battleground state of North Carolina at one of the nation’s biggest annual gatherings of veterans, President Obama unveiled a host of new executive actions Tuesday to address the problems former service members face in obtaining health care, going to college, and buying a home.
“I want you to know directly from me that we are focused on this at the highest levels,” he told the American Legion’s annual convention. “We are going to get to the bottom of these problems, we are going to fix what is wrong, we are going to do right by you, we are going to do right by your families. That is a solemn pledge.”
The speech in Charlotte, North Carolina comes in the midst of one of the tightest and most expensive Senate race in the nation. Republican House Speaker Thom Tillis, who is attempting to unseat Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan, has used the VA scandal and other national issues to portray his opponent as a carbon-copy of the President.
Reports earlier this year claimed that dozens of veterans actually died because of long wait times for health care at the VA. Tillis, along with Republican candidates across the country, have seized the scandal as a chance to attack vulnerable Democrats.
But the President’s speech comes on the heels of a new inspector general report saying no link could be found between the 40 deaths in Phoenix and delays at the medical center, though the investigation did confirm that officials at the VA put at least 3,500 veterans on secret, unofficial wait lists, and retaliated against those who reported problems. They also documented “problems with continuity of mental health care and care transitions, delays in assignment to a dedicated health care provider, and limited access to psychotherapy services.”
“While the case reviews in this report document poor quality of care,” the report said, “we are unable to conclusively assert that the absence of timely quality care caused the deaths of these veterans.”
Many of the President’s new steps seek to address the rampant problems exposed earlier this year by whistleblowers and journalists. He told the American Legion those revelations—which led to the ouster of the Department’s Secretary—are “outrageous and inexcusable,” and vowed Tuesday to hire more doctors and staff, increase oversight and hold people accountable for misconduct.
“If you engage in unethical practices or cover up a serious problem, you should be and will be fired,” he said. “If you blow the whistle on higher-ups, because you’ve identified a legitimate problem, you should not be punished, you should be protected.”
Senator Hagan, who is considered one of the most vulnerable Democrats in this year’s elections, was also at the conference, and spoke about the need for “a complete change in culture at the VA.”
She also sought this week to paint her opponent as the anti-veteran candidate. She points out that in his tenure as House Speaker, Tillis has opposed raising the minimum wage, expanding Medicaid, regulating predatory payday lending companies and extending the Earned Income Tax Credit—all issues that directly impact tens of thousands of military families in North Carolina.