By Martin Matishak - 08/07/14 12:58 PM EDT
President Obama on Thursday signed a $16.3 billion bill to overhaul the troubled Veterans Affairs Department, saying the country had a “sacred duty” to protect its military service members.
The bill, approved by Congress last week, would allow veterans to seek private care outside VA facilities, and would also provide money for the VA to hire more doctors and nurses. The effort came after reports that some veterans had waited months to get care from the VA.
Veterans Affairs chief Robert McDonald attended the ceremony, along with House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Michael Michaud (Maine), the top Democrat on the House Veterans' Affairs panel. Reps. Pete Gallego (D-Texas.) and Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.) were also present.
GOP Reps. Jeff Denham (Calif.) and Rep. Jackie Walorski (Ind.), who are both members of the House Veterans' Affairs panel, also attended the ceremony. House Veterans' Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), however, was not at the ceremony. He was visiting a Veterans Affairs facility in El Paso, Texas.
Waits at Veterans Affairs hospitals became a full-fledged national scandal this spring, as an inspector general report found patients seeking care from a Phoenix VA hospital had waited an average of 115 days for an initial doctor’s appointment. Official data claimed the wait time was only 24 days. The investigation also showed 1,700 veterans had been intentionally kept off official patient rolls.
Those findings led VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign in May.
The new law would grant the VA secretary additional powers to fire incompetent managers, something Obama noted in his comments.
“If you engage in an unethical practice, cover up a serious problem, you should be fired,” Obama said.
Obama also said the measure “will not and can not be the end of our effort.”
The new law provides $10 billion for veterans to seek medical care at non-VA providers if they live more than 40 miles from an agency facility, or if they do not get a doctor’s appointment within 30 days.
But it is unclear how long that funding will actually last and when the VA will need to go back to Congress for additional money.
In a statement, Miller said the legislation should serve as a “wakeup call” for the president.
“I sincerely hope the president views this event as more than just a photo-op or speaking engagement,” said Miller, who called on Obama to become “personally involved in solving VA’s many problems.”
During the ceremony, Obama also made his first public comments about the killing of Major Harold Greene, who was shot in Afghanistan on Tuesday. Greene is the highest-ranking military officer to die in that war.
“Our prayers are with the Greene family, as they are with all the gold star families and those who've sacrificed so much for our nation," Obama said. "Now, four months from now, our combat mission to Afghanistan will be complete."
This story was corrected at 6:24 p.m.