President Obama preached to the choir in Charlotte last week. The American Legion was holding a convention there, and the president, criticized for his handling of the crisis in the Department of Veterans Affairs, simply stood before the conventioneers and vowed to do better.
The speech was significant in that it was the first address from the president to veterans since the scandals in the VA over long wait times and other problems with care resulted in the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.
In May, it came to light that the Veterans Health Administration was having difficulty getting timely help to veterans and that records had been falsified to cover up delays in care. While some VA hospitals, notably the one in Durham, have been widely praised for providing excellent care for veterans, Shinseki – himself a decorated veteran – did not satisfy members of Congress and ultimately the president with his explanations of what had happened.
Americans are properly loyal to and appreciative of their military veterans, who have a solemn pact that in exchange for their service they will get medical care. For many, that care is a life saver not just in terms of the quality of the treatment they receive but because some could not afford care otherwise. And veterans are increasingly plagued by mental health issues for which treatment has been uneven.
Addressing mental health
To clear up the embarrassing backlog of cases, President Obama said he would find additional resources to fund the VA in addition to the $16 billion bill passed by Congress.
The president also will focus on those mental health issues, particularly post-traumatic stress disorder. He has the power: Obama said he would issue 19 executive orders designed to improve mental health care, particularly addressing suicide prevention programs.
One bright spot the president cited was a decrease in the number of homeless veterans. He said the number had fallen by a third in recent years. Homelessness has been an increasing problem because many veterans have had difficulty finding work during the Great Recession as they have mustered out of service. Despite progress, the president said, the nation must continue to work on the problem.
And about that return to civilian life: Obama said he will be working on ways to make it easier for vets to own homes, get jobs and return to school. He said big banks will simplify the process of mortgage applications for veterans, for example.
Something to prove
Veterans’ groups and their advocates in Congress want more. Republican Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida said, “What we need from the president right now is more follow-through and less flash when it comes to helping veterans.”
Fair enough. Obama was criticized for sticking with Shinseki for too long, although a president can’t act with the speed some critics would like. Still, Miller’s quite right that the Obama administration does have something to prove to veterans.
The president seems to understand. In Charlotte, he said the Department of Veterans Affairs would be held to higher accountability standards, including having the ability to dismiss employees who are perhaps entrenched in the bureaucracy and not worth keeping.
Obama also must work more closely with members of both parties in Congress. Taking care of the needs of veterans who have selflessly served their country – in many cases receiving serious wounds requiring years of care or trauma needing attention with mental health treatment – is one issue that is entirely nonpartisan. It’s indeed the president’s job to reach out.
Unfortunately, partisanship has reared its head with regard to veteran care in North Carolina’s U.S. Senate race, where Republican Thom Tillis has said incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan hasn’t done enough to fix the problems. In fact, the senator, recognizing the large number of military retirees and active military personnel in the state, has made helping veterans a priority.
Most members of Congress, Republicans and Democrats, are acutely attuned to veterans’ issues, and a desire to help them, if not the methodology, is virtually unanimous.
With that said, White House and congressional cooperation can create a system that will deliver to veterans what should be coming to them. “We’re going to do right by you,” Obama said in Charlotte. “We’re going to do right by your families. And that is a solemn pledge.”